'In Oregon, large earthquakes are inevitable': School districts explain how they are preparing for seismic safety

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As students head back to school, safety is on a lot of minds. That includes seismic safety.

More than a decade ago, the state looked at more than 1,000 public schools in Oregon. They found out about 47 percent were at a high or very high risk of facing significant damage in a big quake.

"In Oregon, large earthquakes are inevitable," Yumei Wang, Geo-Technical Engineer at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries said.

Wang told FOX 12 schools must be seismically safe.

We don't want any children to be injured," Wang said.

She said scientists didn't understand the Cascadia Fault was active until the late 1980's and building codes didn't change until the mid-1990's.

"During that time, some school districts took a look at their schools and started to evaluate them for their safety and fix them, but by and large, most schools didn't do that," Wang said.

But she said by the early 2000's, the state mandated that all schools meet what's called the Life Safety Standard as funding is available. That means the building, at the very least, should remain standing during an earthquake so students can safely evacuate. The deadline districts have to do that by is 2032.

"We thought that could be a deadline they could meet," Wang said. "Where they could go through their school board, pass bonds to eventually get their schools seismically safe."

So in 2018, 14 years before that 2032 deadline, the FOX 12 Investigators wanted to know where some of the largest districts are right now when it comes to making sure all their schools are ready for a big quake.

Wang said the largest district, Portland Public Schools, started doing earthquake upgrades long before they were told to.

"Portland Public Schools has been doing seismic improvements since the mid-1990s, so they were actually an early adopter as far as worrying about seismic safety of their school children," she said.

But Wang said since they're such a big district, they still have more work to do.

"It is a slow process," Harry Esteve, Director of Communications for Portland Public Schools said. "We have a lot of buildings and as everyone knows, this is expensive work."

PPS officials told FOX 12 five out of 80 schools are currently considered life safe. They also have a handful of other schools that are in the works to become seismically safe in the next coming years.

Take Grant High School, for example, PPS allowed FOX 12 inside the construction site for the school where seismic work is taking place.

"We're going at it as fast as we can and as budget allows," Esteve said when talking about seismic upgrades in the district.

We also spoke with Salem-Keizer Public Schools. District officials said they have 39 schools out of 65 considered life safe.

"We have not ignored this problem," Salem-Keizer Public Schools Superintendent, Christy Perry said.

District officials let FOX 12 into Richmond Elementary where a skeleton was added to the school.

"It goes from the footings of the building all the way to the second story and so in the event of an earthquake, the floor from above won't come down," said Perry.

Voters there recently approved a nearly 620 million-dollar school bond. It will help with even more seismic upgrades.

"So there's about 17 schools that will be getting new structures and when we build any new structures with this bond, we're going to build to an immediate occupancy standard," Perry said. "Really important in our community, was number one safe schools, seismically safe schools, but also some ability to reoccupy because there aren't a lot of places in our community that meet that standard."

Then there's Beaverton School District. It's a district that's praised by Wang for its seismic work in schools.

"Very impressive," Wang said. "It's very impressive."

Beaverton School District officials told FOX 12 that 45 out of 53 of its schools are currently considered life safe.

Then they have a handful of new schools being constructed to the highest seismic goal called Immediate Occupancy, like the new Beaverton middle school building on 118th.

"This is designed so the entire building will move together as opposed to one floor going one direction, the other floor going the other direction," Administrator for Maintenance Services at Beaverton School District, Nathan Potter said.

Immediate occupancy means the school can actually help house some of the community after a big quake.

"Unfortunately, the codes have evolved," Potter said. "A desire for school facilities is to get to an immediate occupancy, which is a much more substantial investment."

"Fortunately, new structures like this one are being built to that code," Potter continued talking about the new middle school.

While Wang said a lot of districts in the state still have a long way to go, she said there's no reason to believe right now that they won't make the 2032 deadline.

"Schools are the hearts of the communities and we need to make sure that the children are safe," she said.

Officials at the three districts FOX 12 spoke with said it's challenging being so big because they have lots of buildings that were built at different times. They said when it comes to seismic upgrades, there is no one size fits all.

Below is a list of schools that district officials provided to FOX 12. They said those are the schools that are currently considered life safe.

PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS Alameda retrofit in 2013 (SRGP funds) Faubion K-8 rebuilt 2017 Franklin High School modernized in 2017 Roosevelt High School modernized in 2017 Lewis Elementary retrofit 2018 (SRGP funds)Future PPS Projects Grant High School modernized in 2019 Hayhurst retrofit 2019 (SRGP funds) Kellogg MS 2021 Madison High School 2021 Lincoln High School 2023 Benson High School 2024SALEM-KEIZER PUBLIC SCHOOLS Auburn Elementary School Battle Creek Elementary School Brush College Elementary School Bush Elementary School Candalaria Elementary School Cesar Chavez Elementary School Chapman Hill Elementary School Englewood Elementary School Forest Ridge Elementary School Gubser Elementary School Hallman Elementary School Hammond Elementary School Harritt Elementary School Highland Elementary School Hoover Elementary School Kalapuya Elementary School Keizer Elementary School Lamb Elementary School Lee Elementary School Liberty Elementary School Mary Eyre Elementary School McKinley Elementary School Miller Elementary School Morningside Elementary School Myers Elementary School Pringle Elementary School Richmond Elementary School Schirle Elementary School Scott Elementary School Sumpter Elementary School Swegle Elementary School Weddle Elementary School Wright Elementary School Claggett Creek Middle School Leslie Middle School Straub Middle School Whiteaker Middle School West Salem High School Barbara Roberts High SchoolBEAVERTON SCHOOL DISTRICT Aloha Huber Park K-8 Barnes Elementary School Bethany Elementary School Bonny Slope Elementary School Chehalem Elementary School Elmonica Elementary School Errol Hassell Elementary School Findley Elementary School Fir Grove Elementary School Greenway Elementary School Hiteon Elementary School Jacob Wismer Elementary School Kinnaman Elementary School McKay Elementary School McKinley Elementary School Montclair Elementary School Nancy Ryles Elementary School Oak Hills Elementary School Raleigh Hills Elementary School Raleigh Park Elementary School Ridgewood Elementary School Rock Creek Elementary School Scholls Heights Elementary School Sexton Mountain Elementary School Springville K-8 Terra Linda Elementary School West Tualatin Valley Elementary School Cedar Park Middle School Conestoga Middle School Five Oaks Middle School Highland Park Middle School Meadow Park Middle School Mountain View Middle School Stoller Middle School Whitford Middle School Southridge High School Sunset High School Westview High School Capital Center: HS2 Capital Center: SST Capital Center: Bridges ACMA International School of Beaverton Merlo Station High School Terra Nova High SchoolNew schools being constructed to meet the "Immediate Occupancy" performance objective: Sato Elementary School Vose Elementary School Hazeldale Elementary School Mountainside High School New Timberland Middle School (currently serving as a home for William Walker Elementary while it is being reconstructed)Copyright 2018 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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