This weekend marks one year since an earthquake and tsunami swept across Japan. Research over the last year reinforces fears that a similar undersea earthquake, along Oregon’s Cascadia Subduction Zone, could be devastating here. And in a big quake, some of the hardest-hit buildings could be schools.
Portland parents working for seismic improvements in schools have different strategies, but they start with the same feeling: fear.
Amy Kleiner’s son is in kindergarten at Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School. Like hundreds of schools across Oregon, it’s not expected to remain intact after a big earthquake.
She said, “I did go through the stay-awake-at-night fear, knowing that I had a small child coming into this building. I laid awake many nights, and then I just decided to do something about it, inform myself about what are the potentially safer places in this building.”
It was a little easier for Kleiner to learn specifics about Sunnyside than for other parents. She’s in her first year, as the principal.
Kleiner said, “Our staff knows – and this is all theory because it hasn’t happened – the safest places to exit. We know where we’re going to collect as a group, if we leave the building.”
Kleiner encouraged another kindergarten parent, Dana Buhl, to form Sunnyside’s “Rock and Roll Committee” to focus on seismic issues. Buhl started by researching the building’s earthquake risk.
Buhl said, “It was built in 1925. Right now, in the cafeteria, a couple of things we know that need to be done to retrofit the building are to attach the ceiling to the walls of the cafeteria…”
If it’s not attached, the ceiling can collapse. The cafeteria’s back doors aren’t considered earthquake-safe exits because there are parapets and a brick chimney that could fall on students. That means that after students hold still and wait for the shaking to end, they would have to walk through the damaged Sunnyside building to the safer front doors. And Buhl says there are other unusable exits.
Buhl said, “Leaving a place after a fire isn’t necessarily the same as leaving after an earthquake. And when you do a fire drill in the school, you would naturally use these fire escapes out the back of the building. But in an earthquake, those are likely to come loose from the building.”
Portland Public failed to get voter approval for a construction bond last year, which would’ve funded more than half a billion dollars for building improvements, including some seismic work.
Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries did a rapid survey of schools’ seismic risk, five years ago. Sunnyside is one of dozens of schools at “very high risk” of collapse. But school officials say Sunnyside’s issues may not be any worse than what other schools face.
Parents say it can be hard to get reliable information from the state and districts, like Portland Public Schools. Lawmakers passed new legislation last month aimed at making such information easier to find.
Buhl said, “People are in this place of kind of confusion about, and fear about what to do. So it’s easier to imagine it not happening.”
Buhl’s group is holding what they’re calling a “Disaster Dinner” to help families make preparations for a possible big earthquake. Principal Amy Kleiner will play a prominent role.
The Portland district says Sunnyside – in part because of it’s environmental science focus— is probably the district’s most active school on the seismic issue.
Less than a mile from Sunnyside is Portland Public’s oldest school building. Richmond also has a unique connection to the tsunami anniversary, because it’s home to a Japanese immersion program.
OPB was not given access to the school for this story. According to the district, Richmond’s principal didn’t want to alarm her staff and parents.
But parent Miriam Carreno is worried already. She has two kids at Richmond, and she endured an earthquake herself, growing up in Mexico City.
Carreno explained, “You know, it is very hard for me to go to work every single day thinking ‘I hope today is not the day.’ Or thinking ‘OK, it’s the weekend, I hope if it’s going to happen, it happens today, because it’s Saturday.’ Or, ‘Well, if it’s going to happen, OK it’s 7o’clock at night, now would be a good time.’ You cannot plan for that.”
Richmond has sent letters home with seismic information, and the Parent-Teacher Association has made “comfort kits” in case of emergency. But a district official says Richmond doesn’t want parents thinking their school is particularly dangerous, because they might transfer away. And that thought had occurred to this Richmond parent.
Morgan Powers has two children at the school and says, “I’ve looked at the other schools that would be the obvious other schools for my kids to go to. And they all have relatively similar risk.”
Geologists say the risks go well beyond Powers’ neighborhood. The statewide nature of the problem pushed Richmond parent, Amanda Gersh, to co-found a new group. Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools has collected 700 signatures for a petition Gersh wants to send the governor.
Gersh explained, “What we’re asking for is basically the minimum level of seismic safety for our school buildings. The state of Oregon mandates school. And we feel that there’s an obligation on the other side.”
In other words, if school attendance is mandatory, school safety should be, too. Oregon has a legislative deadline of 2032, to make seismic improvements. Gersh says the state is not on pace to meet that deadline – in large part, because funding has been very slow in coming. Gersh and state officials agree it makes sense to help the worst schools first.
Yumei Wang is an engineer with the state who toured the damage in Japan last year. She says similar risks face the Oregon Coast. Seaside has four schools in the tsunami inundation zone, but she says responding to that isn’t simple.
Wang said, “So even when you are faced with information that is pretty damning, it is still hard to know what to do with that information.”
Wang has signed the petition to the governor. And she applauds Sunnyside parents who are pushing for affordable fixes – like securing lights and ceiling tiles to keep them from falling – while they wait for money for bigger fixes.
Several parents say they feel better just doing something — whether it’s collecting signatures, throwing dinner parties, or putting together first aid packs.
Susan Laarman has a 7th grader at Sunnyside. She spent years doing communications for the disaster aid organization, Mercy Corps.
She said, “Knowing the risk, knowing what we know about the chances of it happening here, I think none of us would want to look back and say ‘It happened on our watch, and we could’ve done something.’ “
Ultimately, school officials, like Sunnyside principal Amy Kleiner, say seismic risks aren’t just school problems. Kleiner’s obviously focused on her school, and her son who’s a student. But that’s not her whole family.
Kleiner said, “It is terrifying to know that my husband works in the Pearl District and I work over here, and if bridges collapse, or if God forbid, if he’s on the bridge, or if he’s driving with my children to pre-school on that bridge, then that bridge could collapse. So it’s so much bigger than the district.”
The district — Portland Public Schools — is planning a meeting next Wednesday, March 14, on earthquake preparedness. The district is also actively discussing a ten-year plan for its buildings — with an eye toward asking voters to approve a new construction bond.