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.

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The risk is high that Corbett Middle School would collapse in a subduction zone earthquake.

The risk is high that Corbett Middle School would collapse in a subduction zone earthquake.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB News

“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.”

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Michael Clapp/OPB