When the state looked at seismic stability of its public schools, the historic school in Carbonado was one of 15 getting a closer inspection. File photo

When the state looked at seismic stability of its public schools, the historic school in Carbonado was one of 15 getting a closer inspection. File photo

State examines schools, earthquakes; special look at Carbonado

Talk of earthquakes and aftershocks never leaves the news cycle for too long, not in a region sitting atop fault lines.

But the potential damage from a significant seismic event hit closer to home with the recent release of a study highlighting the vulnerability of Washington’s schools.

In short, the unsettling news was that a powerful earthquake would leave many of the state’s public schools unsafe to occupy.

“It’s a question of when, not if, the next earthquake will hit,” said Hilary Franz, who heads the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We need to be vigilant and take steps now to help keep our kids safe. Our children need and deserve safe schools.”

Her comments followed the release of information compiled by geologists at the Washington Geological Survey, a division of the DNR. Those experts inspected the seismic vulnerability of 222 public, K-12 school buildings around the state during the past year. Their findings were sent to the governor and members of the state Legislature.

Of the 222 schools examined, none were in the Enumclaw or White River school districts. However, Carbonado’s historic school was in the spotlight; in fact, the report distributed to the highest levels of state government has a photo of the Carbonado school on the cover.

The overall findings were, in one regard, not too surprising. The state has many older school buildings that are vulnerable to earthquakes, the report shared, noting that “older, unreinforced masonry buildings” are especially at risk. It also was noted that schools constructed prior to 1975, when a statewide building code was adopted, are particularly vulnerable. The report included the fact that Washington has approximately 200 schools within one mile of a known fault and about 70 percent of the state’s schools are located in areas of high seismic risk.

DNR worked with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and structural engineering firm Reid Middleton Inc. to compile the survey – the first time the state has looked at the seismic stability of the state’s schools.


DNR geologists studied the ground on which schools were constructed and worked with Reid Middleton engineers to inspect the structural and nonstructural seismic stability of the schools. As part of the project, they then produced retrofit plans for 15 school buildings to provide districts with estimated costs for retrofitting the buildings to withstand an earthquake.

The historic Carbonado School was among the 15.

Scott Hubbard was superintendent at Carbonado (he retired July 1) when OSPI came calling. The agency reached out during the summer of 2018, stating a desire to perform a seismic study on both the main school building and the separate gymnasium.

Hubbard agreed, hoping the move would lead to additional state funding. The district has made repeated attempts to secure grant money for seismic retrofitting, but been rejected every time. He didn’t complain too loudly, noting that the state provided emergency funds to help Carbonado with a heating system and asbestos removal. Still, Hubbard said, another $100,000 would have gone a long way in making the building even safer.

The seismic inspectors arrived in Carbonado last July and spent the better part of a day reviewing the grounds and two buildings. In the end, Hubbard said, he was told Carbonado was No. 2 on their list – and not in a good way. Only one other school they had inspected rated “worse” from a seismic standpoint.

But, Hubbard said, some real-world experiences have shown the building to be safe. It has stood through three notable earthquakes with no major damage and zero injuries to students or staff.

The detailed plans revealed the cost of seismically upgrading the 15 schools averaged a little more than $1.5 million per building, though that ranged from a low of $63,000 to a high in excess of $5 million. That cost, however, is much lower than the costs of repairing damages after an earthquake.

This study was financed through a $1.2 million appropriation from the state Legislature. DNR received an additional $2.2 million for the 2019–21 biennium to continue these assessments. DNR intends to continue to request further funding to expand the assessments to the rest of Washington’s 4,000-plus permanent public school buildings.

The complete seismic report is available online at https://bit.ly/2NtN5bD

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