State funding for school earthquake assessment far too low

Mar 28, 2018, 3:24 PM

The chance of a Nisqually-size earthquake striking the Pacific Northwest is around 86 percent in the next 50 years.

Check the Earthquake Tracker

There’s a 10-20 percent chance Cascadia event that will cause an earthquake of magnitude 8.7 or higher in next 50 years.

On Wednesday, March 28, Gov. Inslee was told by experts that 72 percent of Washington’s K-12 public schools are at “high or very high seismic risk.” About 200 are within 1 mile of an active fault.

The good news is the Legislature recently approved $1.2 million to assess school building safety.

But Inslee wanted to know when the assessment is complete, will the state know what are the most vulnerable school buildings?

The answer is no.

“We will be in a position to start doing that,” Inslee was told. “We really need to look at a larger sample size in order to make that and have a really educated estimate for the whole entire state. We’ll be closer to making that estimate, but with only 220 school buildings of over 4,000 school buildings, we really can’t say for certain what that means for the entire state. So I think we’re going to need another few years before we make a meaningful extrapolation.”

The state will need $10 million to $15 million just to complete the preliminary assessment of school buildings. That work won’t be complete for 10 to 20 years at the rate it’s currently funded, according to information presented to the governor.

A comprehensive assessment of all public school buildings would cost $50 million to $75 million. At the current funding rate, that work wouldn’t be complete for at least 100 years.

Of course, the more funding the faster the work.

However, locally funded projects are happening. Seattle, for example, has done a comprehensive engineering assessment of more than 100 school buildings. The cost to retrofit them ranges from $4,500 to more than $7 million.

Unfortunately, not all areas are as wealthy as Seattle.

Earlier this week, a new study was released that found a magnitude 9.0 earthquake could cause up to a 60-foot wave that would hit several coastal communities and even flow into Aberdeen.

There are 37 school campuses within tsunami zones, according to state officials. For school districts such as Aberdeen, the need for additional funding for capital projects is real, but not an easy ask.

RELATED: History won’t let us forget we’re due for mega earthquake

Earthquake expert Lucy Jones was in Seattle last week to discuss Los Angeles’ Resilience by Design program. She told GeekWire that California’s San Andreas Fault has a worse worst-case scenario going for it than a Cascadia quake in Washington. However, the Cascadia threat is likely underestimated, even with all the hype around it.

At least in the next decade the state will know what schools it should have reinforced for the “Big One.”

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