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Building Northwest schools so they can shake off the region’s next megaquake

Cots with blankets and pillows stacked on top in a shelter space.
George Armstrong
Shelter spaces in public buildings will need to be structurally sound and immediately usable to be any help to you after a strong earthquake.

Whenever the next Big One hits – a magnitude 9 Cascadia megaquake – it sure would be nice if fire trucks could still drive out of their stations and your neighborhood school could function as a shelter.

Current seismic codes require public buildings to be built strong enough so they don’t fall down in a quake. Now, some emergency preparedness advocates want to raise the bar. Not only should essential buildings resist collapse in a strong earthquake, but also newly constructed schools, in particular, should be built so in the immediate aftermath they can be counted on to serve as relief centers.

This matters to millions of Northwest residents because buildings erected in the near future stand a good chance of being violently shaken by an earthquake. The most recent magnitude 9 rip of the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone happened over three centuries ago, in 1700. Seismologists say that means the region is now well into the window for the next catastrophic temblor.

Additionally, the Northwest faces risks from a multitude of shallow crustal faults and deep slab quakes. Each of these is capable of unleashing up to 7.0-7.5 magnitude shaking in a more localized area.

In Oregon, the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects intends to press the Legislature to require new schools and community college buildings in earthquake country west of the Cascades and in Klamath County to be built with more resilience.

Next door in Washington, the state Emergency Management Division is seeking funding to assess the feasibility and cost of imposing a similar code change for a wider set of public buildings such as government centers, community halls and schools.

New hospitals, police stations, fire stations and aviation control towers already have to meet the most stringent seismic building code to maintain operations in a disaster.

The building code holds schools and other public buildings where large numbers of people gather to a higher standard than your average house or business structure, but they don’t have to go the extra mile as buildings considered “essential” do.

Emergency preparedness advocates say targeted upgrades to public buildings could keep costs down and ensure use after a big quake hits. Even so, getting local taxpayer support for extras can be difficult. That may mean going back to the well for additional state dollars in Washington and Oregon.

“We have the second highest earthquake risk in the country,” Washington Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle said in an interview. “When we do have a major quake, it’s going to be extremely damaging. We’re going to need to be caring for people who’ve lost their homes.”

Ezelle predicted many buildings that could be used as shelters or for emergency response would remain standing, but would be too unstable or otherwise compromised to be usable after the disaster.

“You can get people out of the building, but you won’t want to go back in there,” he said.

Ezelle reasoned that if a subset of essential buildings were constructed to a higher resilience standard, a community could have reassurance that disaster victims would receive services in their moments of greatest need.

In building code terminology, this entails a targeted step-up from the current “life safety” construction standard to an “immediate occupancy” or “functionally usable” standard.

“What we need is to be able to provide water and sanitation and some minimal lighting and electricity,” explained Portland architect Jay Raskin, a preparedness advocate. “We’re only supplying it to areas that can be used for sheltering – it’s not the whole school.”

“The basic idea behind it is having buildings be usable after the catastrophe,” Raskin continued. “These buildings have to be usable right away.”

Beaverton, Eugene and Seaside show the way

In the absence of a requirement, some Oregon school districts have already chosen to build new schools to a higher standard of earthquake resilience.

People wearing hard hats and yellow vest with one person wearing a white button up shirt and blue striped tie holding a microphone and a camera off to the corner.
Beaverton School District
Washington State Standard
Extra seismic bracing that goes beyond current building code minimums is visible in the hallway of Tumwater Middle School in Beaverton.

Voters in the suburban Beaverton School District passed bond measures in 2014 and 2022 to build new schools. Each of the seven school buildings completed since then incorporated selective upgrades to support the schools-as-shelters concept, most notably extra structural bracing and more tie-downs on mechanical systems. Each new school also got an emergency generator and exterior couplings to receive clean water from tankers.

The now-retired facilities administrator for the Beaverton district, Richard Steinbrugge, said that by focusing upgrades on shelter spaces such as gyms and cafeterias the added construction cost was surprisingly modest.

Grey structural steel braces with white buckets underneath in a concrete corridor.
Seaside School District
Washington State Standard
Robust structural steel braces were added to the design of the new Seaside Middle/High School to help the building’s earthquake resilience.

“We found it was a myth that the costs for these features would be exorbitant. They were not,” Steinbrugge said. “Our consultants estimated a range of 1% to 2% additional cost to put in place all of the resilience features that we chose to use.”

“We DID NOT design the entire building and all of its elements to the ‘immediate occupancy’ (i.e., hospital) standard. That would have been costly indeed,” Steinbrugge added in a follow-up email.

Eugene School District 4J is now finishing the third of three new schools after passage of a 2018 construction bond. The administration there decided to build the gym and cafeteria portions of the new schools to a higher seismic standard so the community could count on having those large spaces in an emergency.

The Northwest’s well-publicized earthquake risk does not make it a slam dunk to raise taxes to build more resilient buildings or infrastructure. In Seaside, Oregon, it took two tries before voters approved a construction bond to relocate the community’s middle and high schools out of the tsunami risk zone. The school district then consolidated its schools on a hilltop campus that opened in 2021.

The new campus on high ground was designed to serve as an earthquake and tsunami refuge not just for students. It doubles as an evacuation point for others in the low-lying coastal town. Seaside’s superintendent said the middle and high school building has a 90-hour emergency generator and can draw on the city’s backup water supply through a flexible pipe. The district is now working on stocking an emergency supply cache that will be stored in shipping containers placed behind the high school.

A scenic image of a school campus surrounded by trees from the sky with the hills and ocean in the background.
Morrisey Productions
Washington State Standard
Seaside, Oregon, relocated its middle and high school out of the tsunami zone onto an earthquake-ready campus on a hilltop. A side benefit is the grand view out to the Pacific.

The North Beach School District in Washington has similar vulnerabilities to Seaside. But voters in that district, headquartered in Ocean Shores, soundly rejecteda school construction bond in 2022 to relocate Pacific Beach Elementary School to higher ground and make seismic safety and other improvements to the rest of their schools.

“A lot of districts have been building schools and not doing this,” Raskin said. “Every year we go without requiring that schools be capable of being used as shelters is a year we miss providing shelter for the surrounding neighborhoods during a Cascadia earthquake.”

Rolling the dice at the Oregon and Washington legislatures

In Oregon, a first try to pass the architect-suggested bill to toughen the building code for new school buildings got off to a promising start during last winter’s legislative session. But it ran aground when the lobbying arms of the Oregon School Boards Association and related groups expressed opposition, and as the whole session came to a halt due to a Republican walkout over abortion and gun bills.

School boards lobbyist Lori Sattenspiel said the 2% extra cost recorded in Beaverton doesn’t sound like a lot, but she would not presume that all districts would pay for the upgrade without state funds.

“It’s got to be a local decision because they are the ones paying for it,” Sattenspiel told an Oregon House committee in March.

Raskin said the earthquake preparedness advocates will try again when the Oregon Legislature has a new cast of characters in 2025. He said the immediate occupancy standard for new schools probably wouldn’t fit the limited agenda for the Legislature’s upcoming short session in early 2024.

In Olympia, Ezelle and a like-minded state representative said they want to get a better handle on the variables through a formal study before they run similar building code legislation. State Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Snohomish County, said she planned to introduce a bill calling for such a study during the upcoming legislative session. The study would seek to pin down the right code terminology and scope and which buildings to cover. It would also seek to verify if the projected costs could be as low as what the Oregon advocates reported, which are considerably lower than what Ezelle and Donaghy anticipated.

Donaghy said she wants to apply a wider lens rather than focusing narrowly on school construction. In an interview, she said that in some places it might make the most sense to build new community centers to a higher survivability standard so that earthquake victims can gather there for food, warmth or shelter.

In 2022, Washington state lawmakers agreed to the first installment of a request from school seismic safety advocates to add $500 million over 10 years to the state school construction budget specifically to upgrade or replace the most earthquake and tsunami-vulnerable schools.

The program administrators at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction have been drawn into the conversations about what construction standards to use on future projects. For now, districts can get school construction funding when following the existing “life safety” building code standard.

“We are in the early days” of figuring this out, Ezelle said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.