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It's A Big Deal Preparing Schools For A Big Threat

Experts say hundreds of schools in Oregon are at risk of collapse, when an earthquake hits the state. Oregon has spent millions of dollars in the last few years to protect more than 20 schools. State officials toured one Wednesday in the Willamette Valley.

Rob Manning/OPB

Building excitement around a seismic retrofit isn’t easy. The director of the project at Albany’s Central Elementary, David McKay, has a hard time pointing out what the $1.5 million bought.

“It occurred within the bones, in the structure of the building, and we were able to cover it up. We took this wall here all the way back to the bare studs, and then put a plywood sheer wall in, and then tied the framing of this wall to the foundation, to the floor joist, and then all the way up to the roof joist,” McKay explained.

The fire escape today.

The fire escape today.

Rob Manning/OPB

McKay says if you look closely, you can see evidence of the work: tiles that don’t match, and walls that aren’t cracked, and a brand-new fire escape.

The seismic work also opened up the walls and floors for other things,  asbestos removal and the installation of insulation and fiber-optic cable.

Fifth-grader Emilia Watts says she noticed those changes.

“The bathrooms are better. There’s actually a water fountain in our classroom now, so you don’t have to go walking down the hall. And it feels a lot safer now. It’s a lot nicer.”

Rob Manning/OPB

Central Elementary School is nearly 100 years old, and until recently, the state considered the historic building at “very high risk” of collapse, in an earthquake. And the risk of an earthquake happening?

“There’s about a high 30’s to 40 percent chance that we’ll have one in the next 50 years. For statistics, that’s really high,” says Oregon State University geologist Chris Goldfinger.

He’s spent decades becoming an expert on Northwest earthquakes, and until recently, he’d seen little action around upgrading schools.

“It’s kind of amazing to be here and see the retrofit of this school. I’d never imagined that would happen.”

Rob Manning/OPB

But for every Central Elementary, there are hundreds of other Oregon schools that the state hasn’t funded.

Jay Raskin helped draft the state’s resiliency plan – which took a deep look at Oregon’s seismic risks, including the risk for school children.

“There are about 300,000 students that are at risk in Oregon, and there are about 8000 students who are now protected through this program. So you are a great example to other school districts.”

It’s an example that seismic safety advocate, Ted Wolfe, hopes legislators pay attention to. The governor’s proposed budget has $15 million for school retrofits, and the same amount for emergency buildings.

“The program could be much bigger. And if we want to get at that number of 1000 schools around the state that need support, it has to be much bigger.”

The seismic efforts at schools like Central Elementary are meant to keep the buildings standing  long enough for kids to get out during an earthquake.

Officials run earthquake drills at Central Elementary to remind kids what to do.

The messages may be sinking in.

When scientist Chris Goldfinger asked kids at a school assembly “why are we making such a big deal?” about earthquakes, even though they don’t happen very often,  one boy shouted, “because it is a big deal!”

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