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How Oregon Schools Are Preparing For A Megaquake

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB
The risk is high that Corbett Middle School -- and hundreds of others across Oregon -- would collapse in a subduction zone earthquake.

A report in 2007 found hundreds of schools in Oregon are at high risk of collapse in an earthquake. Eight years later, many of those schools are still vulnerable.

Now, state lawmakers have allocated an unprecedented amount of money for seismic upgrades in Oregon schools and local school districts are moving to tap into that resource to make long-overdue repairs.

At Corbett Middle School, just outside the office, there’s a locked door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Corbett School District Superintendent Randi Trani recently unlocked it and walked down a staircase to a basement full of empty classrooms, toilets and showers.

He stopped at a row of a wooden beams that have been crudely bolted to the wall. They were installed 35 years ago to stop the foundation from slumping.

“When the structural engineers came through and looked at that, they laughed,” he said.

That’s because the beams aren’t connected to the ceiling above or to the floor below, so they’ll only ensure the wall falls down in a single piece.  And, Trani said, the walls of the school were built of unreinforced masonry tile, without steel rebar or any kind of support.

“When the structural engineers talk about this building, they talk about ‘pancaking,’” he said.

Trani has tried three times to pass a bond measure to fix the school, but he said those efforts all failed for the usual reasons.

“We don’t believe that there’s going to be an earthquake. The building has stood for that long,” he said. “And then just purely financial: ‘I don’t want my taxes to go up.’”

Trani also said that people felt their schools should be getting help from the state. That’s one of the reasons bond measures to seismically upgrade schools have failed in districts like Corbett and Seaside.

Oregon Starts Funding School Fixes

Seismic safety advocate Ted Wolf said help is on the horizon, because this year the Oregon Legislature committed $175 million for  school retrofits.

“For schools, that is about a 12-fold increase over the largest commitment we’ve made prior to this,” Wolf said.

The state has known since 2007 that hundreds of schools are at high risk of collapse. But, Wolf said, the Great Recession hit just after the state identified the problem, leading to a delay in repairs.

“When the economy weakened, the state treasurer advised the governor to cut back on state borrowing,” he said. “So, we go with the economic cycles, and right now we’re riding a rising wave, which is a good thing.”

More recently, in addition to committing to school retrofit funding, the state Legislature has also found another $125 million for matching grants to school districts that pass bond measures.


All school districts are now required to tell the state about any seismic upgrades they make, said interim state geologist Ian Madin. Those reports are available online to the public. Those types of upgrades could increase in coming years as schools take advantage of state funding.

“We expect to see a lot more of these potentially at risk schools properly evaluated,” Madin said. “And where they’re found to be deficient, funding will be available for them to retrofit and to make them a safer place for their students.”

School-By-School, Assessing The Challenges

Back at crumbling Corbett Middle School, Trani said, the local district is going to take advantage of the new money.

“We were super excited because we barely missed the seismic rehab for our gym last go-around,” he said. “We think we stand a good chance at getting the gym refurbished with the seismic dollars this year.”

Matching-grant funds are critical because Corbett has a different tax valuation than an urban area like Portland, Trani said.

In Portland, where there is a strong tax base, the school district did manage to pass a $482 million dollar bond a couple of years ago. It’s being used to seismically strengthen 26 schools.

Andrea Jacob has a third grader at Sabin Elementary in Portland, where the roof and walls have been strengthened. But being prepared is more than just having a strong building, she said. She’s organizing parents and neighbors for an earthquake preparedness fair Oct. 16.

“Kind of a resource fair and like, ‘How to build your home kit,’ ‘What’s on site here at the school.’ There are some supplies at the school that we could beef up,” Jacob said. “We’re just going to just basically start educating the community.”

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting