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Are Northwest Schools Ready for an Imminent Earthquake?

In Oregon alone, at least 300,000 children attend school buildings that are vulnerable to a collapse.
Rosa Parks Elementary
Rosa Parks Elementary in Portland was built according to seismic code in 2006.

The "Big One" is coming, said Chris Goldfinger, professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, at the American Institute of Architects' Portland conference in late June. Goldfinger, a renowned expert on earthquakes, believes that within the next 50 years, Washington and northern Oregon face a 10 to 15 percent chance of an offshore quake that could cause a powerful tsunami, and southern Oregon has more than a 37 percent chance of experiencing a magnitude 8 or higher earthquake. In Oregon alone, at least 300,000 children attend school buildings that are vulnerable to a collapse.

"The average building in [Portland Public Schools] is 65 years old," says C.J. Sylvester, chief operating officer of PPS and a panel speaker at the conference. "These buildings made in the 1920s and '30s are not up to seismic standards." Sylvester points to the Cascadia subduction zone, a plate boundary that stretches from Vancouver to Northern California, as the cause of these threats. The zone separates the Juan de Fuca and North America plates, and as a new ocean floor is being created, ocean material wells up and moves toward the coasts of Washington and Oregon.

For schools, this means there is a relative urgency to bring their structures up to seismic code. Two major aspects of a seismically sound structure include gravity weights for a building to hold itself up and tying parts of a building together to prevent it from moving side to side, says Karina Ruiz, associate principal at Dull Olsen Weekes Architects and project manager of Rosa Parks Elementary School, built in the Portland district in 2006. The school was built according to the 2004 building code, while the most recent building code in Oregon was in 2010.

"Our primary concern [in Oregon] is seismic design," says Ruiz. "We want to make sure these buildings aren't going to buckle under during an earthquake."

In May, a $548 million bond to seismically retrofit the district's 53 out of 85 schools failed by 700 votes. The district is hoping to hear from those who opposed the bond and to try again in 2012.