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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House panel approves effort to protect schools from earthquakes and tsunamis

Paul Riek checks damage to his vehicle after the top half of a nearby building collapsed in downtown Seattle during the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake in February 2001.  (STEVAN MORGAIN)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Sitting along the Cascadia subduction zone, experts say it is a question of “when, not if” Washington will experience a large magnitude earthquake. While the U.S. Geological Survey indicates Eastern Washington is at a lower risk for earthquakes than Western Washington, legislators from all over the state are supporting a proposal to help schools upgrade their buildings to address seismic and tsunami hazards.

On Monday, the House Capital Budget committee advanced the proposal to the full chamber.

According to a Department of Natural Resources analysis of 561 school buildings across the state, 63% of them have a “high” or “very high” priority for seismic retrofitting. Nine school buildings in the city of Spokane – including the main buildings of Adams Elementary and the Libby Center – fall into the “high” priority category.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, sponsored a bill that would create a grant program for schools looking to retrofit their facilities to deal with hazards posed by earthquakes or tsunamis. He said the program would provide schools with funds critical to ensure student safety.

“We need a whole of government approach to shore up these schools in these areas where these kids could be at risk,” Frockt told The Spokesman-Review.

Under the bill, which passed out of the Senate last month on a unanimous vote, eligible schools in high-risk areas for earthquakes and tsunamis could apply for grants to fund building projects that would remedy the hazards. The grant amount would be at least two-thirds of the project cost but would not be awarded until the school has identified where the rest of the funds will come from.

Schools would apply for grants through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction where an advisory committee would create a prioritized list of projects to finance. The superintendent of public instruction and the governor would take that list and submit funding requests as part of their capital budget proposal to the Legislature.

This year’s Senate supplemental capital budget proposal includes $115 million to implement the program though that number is likely to change as the budget process continues. The House capital budget proposal allocates about $75 million for seismic retrofits but does not take into consideration Frockt’s proposed program.

“I’m hopeful I can convince the House to meet me with a commitment on this program somewhere where the Senate has proposed,” Frockt said. “We’ll have to see where it plays out.”

Frockt said state funding for seismic retrofits have historically been “piecemeal” – small in amount and slow to get out the door. The grant program, he said, would set in stone a commitment to fund seismic retrofits for years to come.

“By putting it in statute, you put in a mechanism that will be funded every year,” Frockt said.

The city of Hoquiam sits at the edge of a bay a few miles from the main Washington coastline. The Department of Natural Resources has identified it as an area with a very high risk for earthquake and tsunami hazards. Nine buildings in the Hoquiam School District are a “high” or “very high” priority for seismic retrofitting, according to the department’s school analysis.

Matt Kemph, facilities director for the Hoquiam School District, said they are constantly looking at cost-effective ways to upgrade school buildings with the resources they have. However, the resources available are so limited that seismic retrofits for their aging buildings would have to wait 10 to 15 years.

“Our hands are tied; we have to wait,” Kemph said. “We don’t have the resources.”

But Kemph said he knows the district can’t wait.

“The longer we wait, the more we’re rolling the dice. The more we’re going to end up with a catastrophic event,” he said.

A retrofit grant program, Kemph said, would go a long way in helping the district complete its desperately needed seismic upgrades.

“It would offset a big majority of costs that would be borne by the local community,” he said. “It would allow us to maximize the use of the local dollars more efficiently and effectively.”

At the bill’s public hearing in January, supporters of the measure said the risk to students was too large to ignore.

“It is not acceptable to mandate our kids to attend school buildings at risk of collapse during an earthquake,” DaleAnn Baker, parent and member of the Washington State Parent Teacher Association, told the Senate Ways and Means committee.

When the proposal unanimously passed out of the House Capital Budget committee on Monday, Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, emphasized the broad support behind ensuring school buildings are safe.

“We all have a real desire to see that our students are safe in the buildings in which they inhabit when they are trying to learn,” Steele said. “We do place a tremendous amount of value in the safety of our students.”

Frockt said conversations he has had with emergency management officials have revealed that increased funding is desperately needed for better earthquake preparation efforts statewide. He said this grant program is just a small part of that effort.

“I hope that I’ve tried to help,” Frockt said. “But, you know, it probably needs a lot more attention.”

The bill establishing the grant program still needs to be considered by the full House. Capital budget writers on the part of the Senate and the House will work together to determine how much funding the program will get out of this year’s supplemental capital budget.

Editor’s note: The first paragraph of this story has been updated to reflect that experts say it is a question of “when, not if” Washington will experience an earthquake, not “if, not when.”