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Seismic Safety for Schools Doesn’t Exist in Washington State

It has been studied to death, but with no real interest and no action.

Why don’t elected officials in school districts, cities, and the state care about the well-being of children, teachers and staff who work in public schools in Washington state? Here are some possible short answers:

  • They don’t understand the risks and don’t care to learn more
  • Fixing killer school buildings requires money, lots of money — some might say at too big a cost
  • Legislators have other pet projects that they want funding for — it is a zero sum game in budget speak
  • Parents, teachers, school administrators and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for the state of Washington are not demanding action
  • Pure and simple seismic safety ignorance and legislative malfeasance or at a minimum nonfeasance

There have been repeated news stories over the years about the issue of school buildings being in danger of collapsing in an earthquake. Of course, most people no longer read a newspaper and television does a story and then it is gone!

I’ve championed this issue, along with fixing another seismic safety issue, unreinforced masonry buildings (URM), for many years — with no effect. To quote the geologist who did all the liquefaction mapping in Washington state, “This state will not do anything about seismic safety until we are dragging dead bodies out of buildings.” I’ve used that quote in various testimonies I’ve had to make before Washington state legislative committees, with no measurable impact.

One former Washington state legislator, Jim Buck, has taken up the battle for safer schools in Washington state. One delaying tactic used by government to buy time not to do something is to study the problem. Here is what Jim wrote recently: “Over a two year period the legislature paid for a program to examine 559 schools in the state. And 93 percent of them were found that they would partially or fully collapse during a design earthquake. Which would be about a seven [percent]. Four more percent would partially collapse. So there’s 4400 school buildings in the state and basically what it is is ten percent of them have a problem and the rest of them haven’t been evaluated yet.”

You can listen to him talk about the issue of schools and seismic safety on this radio interview that he did recently: “12/14/2021 – Jim Buck – Jonathan Bailor with Miss America – Top Viral Stories.” His is the first of two interviews and it goes for about 25 minutes.

This public safety issue and the lack of attention to it will not be fixed overnight. Likely the most motivating event would be a school collapse. That is something I’m not hoping for, but at this point it seems the only thing that, visually, will cause elected officials to raise the priority of seismic safety.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.