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Local Schools Face Earthquake Risk

Aired 8/11/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Nearly a decade ago the state flagged thousands of schools for possible earthquake risks -- why have many gone unchecked?

South Bay Union School District had more uninspected buildings on the list than any other local school district. It says it didn't hear that some of its buildings could be at risk until three years ago, when it had already promised voters that it would spend $59 million in bond money on other things.
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Above: South Bay Union School District had more uninspected buildings on the list than any other local school district. It says it didn't hear that some of its buildings could be at risk until three years ago, when it had already promised voters that it would spend $59 million in bond money on other things.

Nearly a decade ago, state experts flagged thousands of school buildings that might be vulnerable in an earthquake. Engineers cautioned school districts that more inspections were needed to tell if the buildings were in trouble. But here in San Diego County, many of those inspections never happened. We look at why and what it means to San Diego school children.

Corey Johnson, Education Reporter for California Watch and Emily Alpert, Education Reporter for Voice of San Diego discuss the issue on Midday Edition. Johnson's three-part series "On Shaky Ground" looked at construction standards in public schools. Alpert collaborated with KPBS Education Reporter Kyla Calvert to look into seismic safety in San Diego.

Seismic School Safety - Check out which San Diego County schools could be vulnerable during an earthquake.

GUESTS

Corey Johnson, Education Reporter, California Watch

Emily Alpert, Education Reporter, Voice of San Diego

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: San Diego County schools may be safe in an earthquake or may not be. We'll take a look at the shortfalls in our system for insuring seismic safety for school kids.

I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And this is Midday Edition. Schools are supposed to meet certain standards for earthquake safety, but lack of money and accountability means those standards are no guarantee. We'll learn the results of some investigative reporting for KPBS and others. Also cities are where we live today, and scientist Jeffrey West says all cities play by certain rules. We'll hear from a man who's compared the city to a living organism. That and the weekend preview coming up on midday. But first the news.

FUDGE: San Diego schools may be safe in an earthquake or they may not be. We'll take a look at what went wrong with state standards for seismic safety. It's August†11th, and this is Midday Edition. I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. We'll talk about seismic safety. Also we'll hear from a scientist who has taken a new look at the cities we live in, and also we'll have the weekend preview. But first, we start talk talking -- about seismic safety in schools. California is at the vanguard of requiring and promoting earthquake safety in buildings. Some investigative reporting by KPBS and its journalistic partners has shown that the state system has failed when it comes to assuring the safety of schools. Thousands of schools have been identified as being potentially unsafe, but in San Diego, the follow-up on those warnings has been lax. This has been due to shortage of money, poor communication, and in some cases, indifference. This means that the schools our children attend may not be safe in an earthquake. Joining me to talk about this story are Cory Johnson and Emily Alpert. Emily is the education reporter for VoiceofSanDiego.org. She worked with KPBS reporter, Kyla Calvert, to look at seismic safety standards in San Diego. And Emily is in studio. Thanks very much.

ALPERT: Thank you.

FUDGE: Also joining me is Cory Johnson. He's the K12 education reporter for California watch. He's author of a series called on shaky ground. Cory, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

FUDGE: Emily, how do we know some school buildings in California may not be safe?

ALPERT: Well, nearly a decade ago, the state put together an inventory of buildings that were built before California seriously beefed up its earthquake safety standards for schools. And they looked at these schools and guided them into two categories, those that seemed like they would do well in an earthquake, and those that might not. I say might not because this was a review that was done based on blueprints. They cannot have the money to go out and look at every school. So they created this list, and the -- they said, in order to know for sure, we're going to need to do an in-depth seismic review on these buildings. What we decided to look at was what happened? Did those reviews happen or not?

FUDGE: How big a problem is this lack of follow-up that I think I mentioned before, a problem in the state?

LEF1: Well, when you consider the fact that these buildings that they are flagged for as being potentially unsafe were buildings that were built during a time period when the building codes were not as rigorous as they are now, which ultimately means that the things that you need in order to -- for your building to resist the earthquake shaking may not be there in these buildings. Of that's one point. The other point is the state flag structures that were built with materials that have been proven over time to perform really poorly in earthquakes. So if you're looking at one of those older buildings, which, when you look at it, they're very pretty to look at the concrete, the masonry type structures, those structures have been proven over time to perform really badly in an earthquake. And so when you look at the process that the state used, even though it had some flaws due to funding, per se, this was something that the best structural engineers at the state level consider to be a potential problem.

FUDGE: Right. But how many, cory, buildings if we know, if the state architect is saying X number of buildings have potential problems, may be unsafe in an earthquake, how many schools are we talking about?

LEF1: You're talking in the worst category roughly 7,600 or so, close to maybe 70700 buildings. Roughly there across the state. When you're talking in general in terms of in total, you're talking close to 10,000 school buildings. And these are 10,000 buildings that actually have students and teachers in them now.

ALPERT: And to put that in perspective, that's about 14% of the school building space across the state. So this is a substantial portion of building state.

FUDGE: But Emily, what about San Diego? We're looking at maybe 10,000 school buildings across the state. How many school buildings in San Diego County should we be concerned about?

ALPERT: There were a little more than 300 school buildings on the list from San Diego County.

FUDGE: And of those 300, how many of them have been examined, actually examined by the district?

ALPERT: What we found is that only about 100 out of that 300 or so had been either reviewed, repaired, or torn down.

FUDGE: And it sounds like different school districts have had different -- maybe I shouldn't say success, but have been -- have different levels of vigilant when it comes to examining these school buildings. Put that in perspective for us.

ALPERT: I think we were really struck by how different the response was when we went out and talked to different districts. Some of these school districts had already started checking things out, and in some cases found no problems, and some bases found substantial problems. Gross month union high school district decided to clear students out of some classrooms after they did an inspection some years ago. A number of districts started doing this when we started calling. They started reading the California watch stories and said this is something we want to jump on. And there were a number of school districts which said we don't know which buildings these are because we can't identify the building plans and we can't figure it out.

FUDGE: So they're claiming they didn't get good information from the state in order to act upon it?

ALPERT: A lot of people said that they felt like the letters that came from the state weren't clear enough about what they needed to do. There was never anything saying you guys have to do this, there was never any legal requirement for school districts to do it.

FUDGE: They just sort of said you may have a problem here?

ALPERT: Yeah. There was sort of a check list that was sent out to school districts saying, hey, let us know what happened to these buildings. It did remind them that the only way to know whether or not these buildings are hazardous is to get an in depth review. But a lot of people didn't read that as go ahead and get that review. They read it, this is a throw- away line in a letter, I'll just fill out the check list. So a lot filled out the check list saying, we haven't done anything. And that was it.

FUDGE: In the case where they did take the information seriously and they did do something about it, give us a story about what has happened. What is one cool district that looked at a building, saw they had a problem, and took some steps to fix it?

LEF1: Well, I think we're seeing that right now in Carlsbad. Carlsbad started looking at some of its buildings this summer. Z. We got to come out and look at the way they were checking out the building. I don't think they know yet. But at the very at least, they're going to have a plan going forward about do we have a problem here that we need to fix or can we continue as we have been?

FUDGE: Cory, when a building has problems with seismic safety, what kind to be the problems? What are we talking with? Replacing walls or something?

LEF1: You're talking -- it could be a whole range of things. But mainly they deal with how the walls connect with the foundations or how the walls connect to the roofs. Of the and is there sufficient enough reinforcement that allows the material to give and sway when the earthquake's shaking occurs.

FUDGE: And Emily, what does all this mean? Are we talking about -- are we saying there's some schools out there that are death traps?

ALPERT: No. I would not say that. I would say that the state has brought up that these buildings could have problems, based on when they were built, based on the kind of construction, and that it's worth checking out.

FUDGE: And Emily Alpert is education reporter for VoiceofSanDiego.org. She worked with our reporter, Kyla Calvert, to look at seismic safety standards in San Diego. Cory Johnson joins me by phone. He's the K12 education reporter for California watch. And we're talking about the problem of guaranteeing seismic safety with California school buildings. Emily, when the state tells you you may have a problem that may need to be fixed, and someone needs to pay for it if you're going to fix it. Where does the money come from?

ALPERT: Well, the state created a fund that districts could apply for. But the amount of money was way less than what would estimated costs were going to be for these repairs. The state was estimating it would cost more than four billion, and there's only two hundred million put into the fund. The other problem was as cory did some fantastic reporting on, there were extremely restrictive rules around districts being able to access that money. That's been loosened up this summer as a result of cory drawing attention to it, but there's not anymore money in there. And that's still an issue.

FUDGE: I think you talked with some school district officials who said, well, maybe we have a problem here, but we have some money for capital improvements, and we're supposed to use it for other stuff.

ALPERT: That was one of the amazing things to us. A number of these districts had passed bonds to make other improvements, modernize, get new light fixture tours, whatever it is. And they hadn't incorporated these inspections into those plan plans, sometimes because they got the letter after they weren't told what they were going to do.

FUDGE: When you look at the State of California, how big a priority is seismic safety for school districts?

LEF1: Historically, it tends to ebb and fro. That's what we learned in the course of our research. After there's a big earthquake, there's a lot of attention on it. But then as time lapses, other priorities tend to take hold. And I think that was one of the things that Emily discovered that concurred with findings was that money tends to be a really big issue for school districts. And they hate to get these unfunded man indicates, these letters saying that you need to do XY and Z, but there's no money associated with if to allow them to do it. And so as long as the money issue is out there, and school districts are obviously cash strapped in other means and other areas, so long as you have this hanging out there, you're going to have this issue people want to make repairs but may not have the funding necessary to do it, and so they just avoid it.

FUDGE: Just a couple more minutes left. Emily, I wanted to mention to you that we have seen what happens to a school, in fact I saw the school myself, which was hit hard by an earthquake. This was in Calexico; an elementary school suffered a lot of damage during the Easter earthquake of last year. The earthquake hit the school when it was not in session. What kind of damage might have been done, what kind of injuries might we have seen if the kids had been in school?

ALPERT: I think the key thing that happened, one of the thing schools we talked about in our -- these awnings that kids would walk on between classes. And the paneling underneath it fell so hard that they knocked knobs off of door the. And the former superintendent said that was really what freaked her out, she worried that kids would have really gotten her hurt if they were underneath those awnings. And this is a building that's on this list. That's not to say that all bells on this state list are going to have this exact same thing happen, that they would have the same issues. But it gives you an example of why we still need to check out these buildings.

FUDGE: And just to wrap things up, where are we today? Are we still sort of in a situation where there are a lot of these potential buildings out there that might be dangerous and may or may not be examined by their school districts?

ALPERT: Yeah. From what we found, only about one in three in the county had either been inspected, repaired or demolished. So the majority either just had not had anything happen at all, couldn't be identified, they sort of remain an unanswered question.

LEF1: And yet, also at the same time, there is a push by school districts to try to get more informed. In LA, for example, we started a week or so ago where fortunately there have been holding monthly meetings to tell the school districts that there's probably going to be some strong legal liability concern if they don't act to resolve this problem. And after one of those sessions, one particular school district went out and passed the resolution with their School Board to try to get some stuff done, to get a structural evaluation done and to try to make some improvements. That's just one example in LA where the word is getting out, and some people are trying to respond.

FUDGE: Okay. Well, tune in tomorrow morning on morning edition on KPBS for the second part of Kyla Calvert's radio series on seismic protection of schools. You can go to KPBS.org or VoiceofSanDiego.org to see a map showing are in San Diego County there are schools that are potentially unsafe in an earthquake. Core every Johnson is the K12 education reporter for California watch. He's author of a series called on shaking ground. Cory, thank you.

LEF1: Thank you.

FUDGE: And Emily Alpert is the education reporter for VoiceofSanDiego.org. Thank you Emily.

ALPERT: Thanks Tom.

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