Peninsula schools: How tsunami-safe are they?

Peninsula schools: How tsunami-safe are they?

We’ve all seen the sorrowful TV news reports: Some developing nation has been hit by an earthquake. Frantic parents and others are wrestling apart the shattered bricks of a school searching for children in the wreckage. “Poor devils,” we think, “if only they had known enough to build seismic-safe schools …”

In some respects, Ocean Beach School District is ahead of others on the Pacific Northwest coast in terms of being ready for seismic disaster. But in other ways, our school children still deserve more attention to their safety.

On the positive side of the equation, the renovations that we authorized during the past decade brought schools up to standard. To quote a former school board member:

“Quite the engineering. Ilwaco was the most complicated due to existing two-story concrete construction and retrofitting new seismic engineering structures to stabilize the building against earthquake movement. Long Beach was totally rebuilt with two-story addition and Ocean Park is essentially a brand new structure, thus both met new seismic code at the time of construction.”

It’s great that our schools comply with code, but all three deserve ongoing examination on seismic issues. This is particularly true after the Japanese quake, where thousands of lives were lost despite safeguards more stringent than anything in Washington state.

A statewide issue is that the seismic code is always evolving and being updated, while all school districts have limited resources. Just how do you build a school capable of withstanding five minutes of violent shaking, like the 9.0 quake that happened in Japan? There may be ways, but there’s a fairly strong chance that very few schools in the state — including ours — would do so based on the seismic standards of five or 10 years ago.

Other issues are very local. Long Beach Elementary is in an inundation zone. Students and staff will have to evacuate following a near-shore subduction-zone quake, most likely on foot since streets may be impassible. Where will they go in the 20 minutes they’ll have?

Ocean Park Elementary is at higher elevation, but isn’t high enough to permit complacency. In Japan, tsunami waters reached over 70 feet in some places — well above ground level on most of the Peninsula. (There is reason to hope that the shallow underwater shelf off our shore will absorb some of a major tsunami’s energy, but we’d be foolish to bet on this.)

Ilwaco High School is well elevated and was recently upgraded — but how much can you really trust any cement structure in a force 9 quake?

We may still have decades left before the inevitable occurs and we are struck by a historical quake like the one that just hammered Japan. 

Last year, the Washington State Seismic Safety Committee and the Washington State Emergency Management Division launched a pilot project to look at threats facing individual schools around the state, starting with Aberdeen and Walla Walla. Project leaders hope this will lead to a statewide assessment for all Washington public schools, which would prioritize them based on seismic risk, factoring in the soil types on which they are located.

This is a good step, deserving follow-up and funding. We all owe it to our children and grandchildren to make their survival our top priority as we consider when to replace schools and where to locate them. 

We can’t ensure safe schools in safe places in a year, or probably even in 10 years. As soon as public finances permit, our taxes should go to this — certainly before fighting foreign wars and many other priorities.

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