Pending earthquake begs questions of school safety

The Pacific Northwest is doomed.

Geologists have warned about an inevitable earthquake – with a magnitude of up to 9.2 – for more than 20 years. That knowledge, although frightening, loomed in the back of many minds as a distant and unlikely danger. Until this summer.

A veil dropped with the publication of a New Yorker magazine article, “The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

Not just any quake, but a megaquake that might rock us, our home, schools and bridges for five minutes. By the time the “Big One” is finished, an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said, anything west of Interstate 5 will be “toast.”

That includes Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem, Olympia, and the millions of  people who live there. FEMA estimate 13,000 deaths, which doesn’t count injured or displaced.

This megaquake will erupt from the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs for 700 miles off the coast of the Northwest. It begins near Cape Mendocino, California, runs up Oregon and Washington, and ends around Vancouver Island, Canada. It separates the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plates. The Juan de Fuca Plate is pushing and shoving under  the North American Plate, which periodically causes a quake. Geologists only discovered the subduction zone less than 30 years ago.

The New Yorker article – and the media storm that followed – had the usually relaxed people of the Northwest rushing to buy emergency kits. Some homeowners were cashing big checks to rebuild the foundations of their old Portland homes.  

Geologists tell us that the quake is due – soon. But when? Maybe in our lifetimes, maybe not. Scientists say odds that a Cascadia earthquake happening in the next 50 years are roughly one in three.

The panic has died down as the story has faded. But what if the “Big One” happens soon, perhaps in the middle of biology class? What would happen to Lincoln? What systems are in place to assure the safety of students and staff? How solid is our foundation?


Shake, rattle, collapse?

Architect Hollis E. Johnston designed Lincoln High School in 1951, well before any awareness of earthquake risk and seismic safety in the Northwest.  Builders erected a brick-face,  reinforced concrete behemoth outfitted with a fallout shelter in the basement.

While those materials are suitable for minor quakes, if you shake heavy masonry buildings long and hard enough, they won’t hold up.

Luckily, updates have been made. A 1995 school improvement bond paid for incremental seismic strengthening with the addition of concrete shear walls and steel frames to the east wing and basement. These bracings provided “all needed lateral strengthening for the two eastward extending classrooms wings and the center wing,” according to a 2002 comprehensive seismic review. Whether it could truly withstand the strength of a 9.2 remains to be seen, however.

In 2009 the contracting company GeoDesign investigated geological hazards threatening each PPS facility. Lincoln looked safe for earthquake-induced hazards. Risk was  “low” for such problems as liquefaction (loose soil), surface fault rupture (close to a mapped fault), slope failure (close to possible landslides) and flooding.

So at least we’re not in the most danger. But Lincoln’s low risk for these factors does not mean it is well prepared for the earthquake itself. It just means that other disasters caused by quakes are less likely to occur or contribute to the damage.

Chasing bond funding

In 2012 Oregon voter approved a $482 million bond measure to upgrade PPS facilities. With the bond, Franklin, Roosevelt and Grant High Schools will be modernized and Faubion Pre K-8 will be rebuilt. But the funds have also gone towards seismic upgrades and rehabilitations, although mostly in elementary and middle schools.

So when is Lincoln’s turn?

“The construction of a modernized Lincoln is contingent on the passage of a future School Building Improvement Bond,” says David Mayne, PPS bond communication manager. This modernization would include bringing the building up to modern seismic standards.

The new bond would be on the November 2016 ballot if PPS decides to go through with it, and construction on a new Lincoln would likely begin in 2018.

All of this will be decided later this fall, when master planning for modernization of Lincoln as well as Benson and Madison High Schools begins.


Safety Measures in place

Buildings aside, how prepared are PPS schools for earthquakes?

We work hard every day to keep students and staff safe from all types of emergency situations,” says Molly Emmons, PPS emergency preparedness planner.

Every classroom in the district is stocked with emergency “go” buckets with wet wipes, grease pencil, solar blanket, food bars, glow sticks, flashlight, batteries, dust mask, whistle, gloves, waste liners, bucket, lid, safety vest and a first aid kit. But emergency meals are stored at the main district office across the Willamette River in Northeast Portland.

Additionally, emergency preparedness and fire drills are rehearsed monthly, while earthquake and lockdown drills occur twice a year. According to Oregon law, earthquake drills are required to teach the drop, cover and hold on method.

The state recognizes that not all schools are well-equipped to deal with quakes, however. If a school determines “based on evaluation of specific engineering and structural issues related to a building, that drop, cover and hold on may not be the most effective earthquake emergency response procedure to prevent or limit injury or loss of life,” it may teach students other protocols.

FEMA trains district-wide faculty for emergencies every five years.


What the experts say

Scientists at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries are examining past earthquakes to get a better understanding of future ones.

“No geologist can predict when an earthquake will happen, only that it will happen,” says Ali Hansen, earth-science information officer at DOGAMI. “The Cascadia subduction zone earthquake is the biggest earthquake we will have, and it is the more frequent one.”

Experts have also predicted that buildings built before the 1990s would undergo the most damage. Historic buildings in Downtown Portland have no brick reinforcement and will probably not withstand the dangers of a quake.

As for the breakdown of how the “big quake” will affect Portland, Hansen cites earthquake zones.

“There are four zones: the tsunami inundation zone, which is essentially the coast; the valley, which is Portland and Salem; and the rest of the state, which is broken up into the eastern and central zones,” Hansen says. A tsunami will hit the Coast, which would take the brunt of the shaking, too. The valley zone will experience less shaking. Impact will diminish further in the East and Central zones.  

Scientists might have a few clues before an earthquake hits. Hansen says the change of elevation of the land could be one hint. Another predictor is to study samples from the core of “ghost” forests whose trees were killed by saltwater, but remain standing. Yet the science of earthquake prediction remains imperfect.

So experts push us to be ready.

“Preparedness is not a stagnant idea or action,” says Emmons, the emergency preparedness planner. “We are always looking at ways we can make our schools more resilient to disaster.”

It just depends on if there’s time enough to prepare before we’re toast.