LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: What earthquake engineer Yumei Wang saw when she looked at this grade school near Vernonia, Oregon, near Portland, was chilling.
YUMEI WANG, Engineer: This triangular part up here on top would fall out with a little bit of shaking. In extreme cases, with even a moderate earthquake, buildings like this have collapsed down into rubble piles.
LEE HOCHBERG: Last year, as director of the state’s geohazards team, Wang examined every public school in Oregon and found frightening weaknesses.
YUMEI WANG: If we had a quake during the day here, it would be very likely to have a large number of fatalities. We are truly gambling with children’s lives.
LEE HOCHBERG: Engineers in Oregon say more than half of Oregon’s schools are vulnerable, because Oregon sits just 70 miles from the Cascadia fault, which runs along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Northern California.
Many scientists predict that fault could spawn a 9.0 quake, 32 times more powerful than China’s. Even a smaller quake, like the one in 1993, destroyed this high school 45 minutes south of Portland.
YUMEI WANG: We have about 1,000 school buildings that we think are in the high to very high probability of collapse.
People assume that what happened in China can’t happen here. This building would very likely collapse here in Oregon, in the United States.
This timber member has split. You can see that it’s quite extensive along the length of this column. The gravity system of this portion would be gone, and it would collapse.
LEE HOCHBERG: Two hundred and fifty four students spend their days in this building; 300,000 attend Oregon’s other imperiled schools, most built before seismic codes were adopted in the 1990s.
Back in 1933, California state legislators passed a school earthquake safety law after 70 schools collapsed in a quake. In the 75 years since, despite damaging quakes that crumbled highways and buildings, there have been no earthquake-related injuries in schools built under the law.
An earthquake's looming threat
But in Oregon, which scientists say has experienced earthquakes even larger than California's -- just not as often -- spending money on earthquake preparedness has been a harder sell.
PETER COURTNEY (D), President, Oregon State Senate: I think it's hard to get people on a continuous, 24/7 basis to be concerned about the mighty quake.
LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, who sponsored the bill that led to Wang's seismic study, now is pushing a multibillion-dollar effort to retrofit the schools by the year 2032. The public voted to allow such expenditures already back in 2002, but little has been spent.
PETER COURTNEY: There's always something else that replaces it that's more important, speaking of balances. There just is. There just is. Even China, the mighty fury of China -- well, that's a long way away. You know, that's not right here.
LEE HOCHBERG: Part of the reason for inattention is that Oregon's last major quake was in 1700, when a magnitude 9.0 set off a tsunami that wiped out Indian villages. Most scientists believe such quakes have occurred 20 times in the last 10,000 years; that's once every 300 to 500 years. That means the state is due for another.
PETER COURTNEY: All the certified smart people have said this thing is coming. It is real. It's going to hit us with a mighty wave, and it's going to hit this area right in here. And when it does, it's going to be unimaginable.
Opposition to earthquake spending
LEE HOCHBERG: But opponents say the state has higher spending priorities.
JEFF KRUSE (R), Oregon State Senator: If we had all the money in the world, it would be nice to be doing all these things.
LEE HOCHBERG: Republican State Sen. Jeff Kruse argues Oregon's risk is lower than neighboring California's or Washington state's. The U.S. Geological Survey says there's a 70 percent chance of a devastating quake along one fault near Oakland in the next 50 years, but only a 15 percent chance in Oregon.
JEFF KRUSE: To spend it to do something to prevent a potential? You know, we have enough concrete, provable, demonstratable needs in this state. OK, and so we retrofit these to a 7.0, OK? And we get an 8.0. What have we done? See, you don't know.
LEE HOCHBERG: Kruse doesn't question the state's report on the schools. He questions whether there are more important ways to spend school money.
JEFF KRUSE: It may happen, but, you know, this building could catch fire and kids could die, OK? A fire is a much more likely event than an earthquake. How many of our schools have adequate fire suppression systems? Not all of them do.
There are some real health and safety issues that should be addressed in this state in these schools that have nothing to do with earthquakes that we know exist.
PETER COURTNEY: You're playing with kids. They can't make these decisions. We adults make these decisions. It's our watch. It's our watch. It's our time. You want to gamble on that, you go ahead. I'm not going to gamble on that. I'm not going to take that chance. No, I'm not going to do it.
Schools raise their own funds
LEE HOCHBERG: Instead of awaiting uncertain state funds, some schools have raised their own money for retrofits. In Portland, where the state identified 30 schools at risk, the district spent $18 million on repairs, like to these large columns at Benson High School.
The district's Matt Shelby.
MATT SHELBY, Portland School District: Prior to the retrofit, they were hollow. And what we did is we actually ran steel down the center of each one of those and then filled them with concrete. So now you've got reinforced concrete holding up all those pillars.
Well, very realistically, you could have had these columns just purely crumbling and falling apart. That's the primary exit of this building. You can see the students right there.
LEE HOCHBERG: Workers also bolted the exterior walls to internal floors and ceilings, reinforced other walls with concrete, wrapped unstable chimneys, and added supports to ornamental brickwork.
On the Oregon Pacific coast, one school district is preparing to actually move five schools near the beach out of the way of the tsunami that could accompany the big quake. The cost of that move could be $100 million.
Seaside School District Superintendent Doug Dougherty.
DOUG DOUGHERTY, Seaside, Oregon, School District: From the time the earthquake occurs, we have about 10 to 15 minutes before a tsunami will occur. The buildings we know will likely fail and we know that, at this point, getting out of our buildings will be difficult.
LEE HOCHBERG: But some school districts, like that in Vernonia, whose schools so disturbed Yumei Wang, cannot afford to do their own remodeling. The struggling timber town rejected a tax increase for seismic upgrades on its schools. As for the state, it says it hopes to begin helping next year.