'Walls may cave in'
Can Lake Oswego School District buildings withstand the major earthquake that scientists say could hit the West Coast within the next 50 years?
Maybe. But there is some risk of collapse, LOSD documents show, because the structures are old and aren't up to current seismic standards.
"Each school meets the building code in effect at the time it was permitted and built," says Randy Miller, the district's executive director of project management. "The current code was adopted well after our latest school was constructed."
That's a problem, officials say, because Lake Oswego is sitting on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault line deep in the Earth that spans from Northern California's Cape Mendocino to British Columbia's Vancouver Island. Seismologists say there is a 30 percent chance that disastrous tremors along the fault line — with a magnitude similar to the 9.0 quake that hit Japan in 2011 — could strike within the next 50 years.
And according to a Facility Condition Assessment prepared for the LOSD in 2015, Jan Castle says, local schools are at a low to moderate risk of collapse if that kind of earthquake happens.
Castle is familiar with the issue of earthquake safety. She served on the LOSD's Bond Development Committee and co-founded the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, an environmental advocacy group that also supports creating energy-efficient buildings made to weather disasters. Castle says the district needs the seismic upgrades proposed in the $187 million bond that's on the May 16 ballot.
Schools are probably not all "going to crumble," she says. "But there would be extensive damage, and there could certainly be significant injuries" among the 7,000 children attending classes in the LOSD.
Castle says most LOSD buildings are simply outdated. Half of the 10 local schools were built before the state had even adopted its first building code in the 1970s. The outmoded structures would sustain a great deal of damage in a major earthquake in which the shaking goes on for several minutes, she says.
"These buildings, which house our children for the better part of their days, are extremely vulnerable to substantial damage," Castle says. "Fixtures will fall from the ceilings; windows will shatter; bricks will fall off; walls may cave in."
If Measure 3-515 passes next week, however, local school buildings would receive seismic upgrades, be fully upgraded to Life Safety (LS) Standards or receive Immediate Occupancy (IO) Standard upgrades to the gyms. The bond includes funds for districtwide repairs, seismic upgrades and security/technology improvements, as well as the full replacement of Lakeridge Junior High and the school district's pool.
Buildings that meet the Life Safety standard "should prevent significant casualties," according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency document. Immediate Occupancy drops the injury risk down to "very low," FEMA documents show. The proposed LOSD upgrades also would allow students, employees and community members to shelter onsite after the tremors have ceased, although some utilities — such as plumbing or lights — may not function, the documents say.
"A shorthand description of the difference is that Life Safety means you could evacuate the building safely, but not reoccupy it," Castle says. "With IO, you could evacuate, check for obvious damage and then reoccupy it."
If the LOSD bond is approved, all buildings will receive some upgrades, three will be fully retrofitted to the LS standard (Hallinan, Oak Creek and Westridge elementary schools), and the gyms of every school except two will be updated to the IO standard. Only Lake Grove and Forest Hills elementary will have their gyms upgraded just to Life Safety, and that's because of their age; it'd be incredibly difficult to upgrade the structures to a higher standard, Miller has previously told The Review.
Castle says that because of the proposed improvements to district buildings, the bond will protect children's lives.
"It's going to be a financial stretch for some (to pay for the bond), that is true. But now that we know about this earthquake, how can we not vote to protect our children?" she says. "Holding out for a 'more perfect' bond ignores the reality of what could happen in the meantime."
Measure 3-515 would include a tax rate of $1.25 per $1,000 assessed property value. The bond would create a tax of $425 per year for a home with an assessed value of $340,000, the median in the school district, according to Clackamas County. Assessed value equals about two-thirds of a typical home's real market value.
Lake Oswego Fire Marshall Gert Zoutendijk says the improvements the bond would make are worth it to his colleagues, because having more structurally sound schools would save time for first responders. If they can be reassured that school buildings would stay upright in an earthquake, he says, rescuers could focus resources elsewhere and know that children would be safe.
"It's a huge benefit knowing that a school campus has the reinforcement, so it won't fall down and crush hundreds of kids," Zoutendijk says.
Lake Oswego Police Chief Don Johnson agrees, saying it would be ideal for first responders if school buildings were safe for students in an earthquake. Johnson says additional security upgrades included in the proposed bond would also protect students from shooters and other attackers.
Johnson has previously told The Review and said at a recent School Board meeting that children, frail seniors and other vulnerable populations are the focus for first responders in a disaster situation.
"The rest of you are on your own," he said.
But that's simply prioritization in an initial crisis, he says. First responders are there for everyone, of course, but it would help to know that if an earthquake strikes during the school day, priority populations like school children would be tucked in under safe, secure roofs.
Castle says the bond would help achieve that, and it would also make the first steps in the rebuilding effort after a major quake much easier.
"Reopening schools would bring needed stability to the children and enable their parents to return to work," she says, "which (would be) a critical factor in the recovery of our economy."