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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Focus on climate comes at cost of ensuring seismic safety in schools

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The scientific consensus says the hazard is irrefutable. Models indicate a timeline of less than 75 years to catastrophe. Engineering studies confirm the high cost of postponing action in terms of economic impact and lives lost. And as Gov. Jay Inslee said at his recent news conference, “What’s at stake is nothing less than our children’s future.”

Except Inslee wasn’t talking about addressing the clear and present hazards identified by the Washington state Department of Natural Resources’ 2019 Geological Survey study. He wasn’t talking about learning from the tragedy that unfolded 15 years ago after a subduction zone earthquake in Indonesia. Over a quarter of a million people were killed when the 2004 Christmas tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean, with economic damages measured in the billions.

Inslee’s big reveal was a proposed $273 million in spending on programs to potentially impact climate change this century. His supplemental budget request for protecting children and teachers in seismically unsafe schools is $10 million. And that’s only 40% of what Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, requested in his letter to the governor.

If fully funded, the School Seismic Safety Retrofit Program would budget $25 million per year over the next decade to make Washington’s schools safe places for our children’s future.

Reykdal’s request was a direct response to the hazard report delivered by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz in July. Phase 1 of the school seismic safety study examined a sample of 222 out of 4,444 permanent K-12 buildings across the state to start scoping the problem. In its report, DNR said the problem “may require a decade or two of action … to successfully complete.”

Detailed engineering studies for upgrading a subset of 15 buildings provided the basis for extrapolating costs for the full program.

Eastern Washington schools in the enhanced engineering and cost analysis included Chattaroy Elementary, Creston Elementary, Grand Coulee Dam Wood Shop, Harrington K-12, Newport High School and Wilson Creek K-12. Also included from Spokane were Adams Elementary, Audubon Elementary and Libby Center.

Tyler Muench from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s School Facilities Division said “we want to fix as many buildings as we can, make our students as safe as possible, and tackle this across the state.”

Muench confirmed the $25 million request was based on addressing the needs of the first 15 schools with completed engineering studies and estimates. Sure seems like a logical place to start. Real hazards and real costs.

Seismic upgrades at Libby Center and Adams Elementary are on the district’s to-do list for renovation, according to Dr. Mark Anderson, associate superintendent for capital projects and facility services.

Funding mechanisms for the work have not yet been assigned, although obviously a grant from a newly created state seismic retrofit program would help stretch local dollars farther. Dr. Anderson confirmed they are working with DNR on the Phase 2 hazard report to evaluate additional buildings.

Although seismic hazard is often seen as a West Side risk, Eastern Washington is not immune from rocking and rolling. Muench noted the largest Washington earthquake observed in recent history was centered near Entiat on the east side of the Cascades in 1872. Spokane has had its own swarms of small quakes from known and unknown faults. And some types of structures are susceptible to failure in even the mild shaking that might cross the Cascades after a magnitude 9 or greater subduction zone quake. The hazard is not about a modeled if, it’s a definite when.

And still we lack focus at the top. In 2016, Gov. Inslee announced the Resilient Washington Initiative with White House fanfare. A subcabinet level committee was formed and met quarterly in 2017, issued a report, said this was a long term effort, then went silent. There was no reaction from the governor’s office to the DNR report this July, although there were two press releases on saving salmon, one commenting on the U.S. census citizenship question and one on adding multiple gender options to Washington drivers licenses. To vape or not to vape got more attention than what to do about school buildings with life safety risks.

Building a resilient Washington will take persistent effort and consistent leadership. Perhaps the legislature will find a way to squeeze 5% out of the governor’s pet projects to fully fund necessary seismic upgrades at all 15 schools. After all, it’s for our children’s future.

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