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Are California’s Schools Ready for the Next Big Earthquake?

April 11, 2011 at 6:24 PM EDT
The earthquake in Japan is prompting concerns about the ability of U.S. buildings to withstand a similar disaster. Special correspondent Anna Werner reports on the seismic safety risks in many California schools. Her report was jointly produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The earthquake in Japan is prompting concerns about whether some buildings in the United States would be able to withstand a similar disaster.

We have a report from special correspondent Anna Werner about seismic safety risks in many California schools.

Her story was jointly produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED Television.

ANNA WERNER: Two miles from the sea along the coast sits the town of Pescadero, population 2,042. It is where Bryan Burns lives and works on his family’s ranch.

BRYAN BURNS, parent: Our family has been in Pescadero roughly about 116 years.

ANNA WERNER: The town built its middle and high schools on property his family used to own.

BRYAN BURNS: I knew that the earthquake fault went through the property. I didn’t know exactly where.

ANNA WERNER: So, Burns started asking questions about the safety of those school buildings.

What did you find out about your schools?

BRYAN BURNS: That most of the buildings are uncertified. Most construction has been illegally done.

ANNA WERNER: Illegal under a state law known as the Field Act, which says all school construction projects must be certified as earthquake-resistant. The law was put into place after the devastating 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Seventy schools collapsed, and 120 people died.

And when Burns and fellow resident Jeff Gananian looked further, they found structural work was done on their school without the state’s approval.

MAN: That’s when the lightbulb went on. And we begin to realize that there are potentially thousands and thousands of other projects.

BRYAN BURNS: People won’t find out until a disaster happens or an earthquake happens. And at that point, it’s too late. I don’t want to see kids get killed.

ANNA WERNER: And the risks are statewide.

A California Watch investigation finds thousands of school projects don’t comply with the Field Act. And those schools aren’t just in small districts like Pescadero. The Los Angeles Unified School District finished this new middle school just six years ago, yet state records indicate that huge window walls, three stories high, may not be properly anchored.

Even the original architect on that project, Jim Smith, says those windows, as constructed, could pose a risk to students in an earthquake.

JIM SMITH, architect: The whole window wall could come out or glass shattering. And obviously, if that happens, it’s not a good situation.

ANNA WERNER: And what would your concern be?

JIM SMITH: They could be injured.

ANNA WERNER: The state agency charged with enforcing school earthquake regulations is the Division of the State Architect, or DSA.

When California Watch brought its questions there?

SCOTT HARVEY, California Department of General Services: I’m going to tell you, there is no evidence that children are in unsafe buildings.

ANNA WERNER: Scott Harvey is acting director of the Department of General Services, which oversees that division. He says California Watch’s investigation did uncover problems, but mainly with incomplete files.

SCOTT HARVEY: Can we do a better job of that? Absolutely. Should we streamline that? Absolutely.

ANNA WERNER: But Harvey insists:

SCOTT HARVEY: I don’t think those files have lead to any safety violation. I don’t think we have ever put a child at risk. In fact, the Field Act ensures that California kids are in the safest buildings nationally.

ANNA WERNER: But a California Watch review of the DSA’s own records suggests the problems are more serious. This 2006 report concluded that some school projects were being completed without adequate testing and inspection, sometimes with dangerous construction flaws.

PETER YANEV, engineer: What that tells me is that we’re building schools in California that are not properly designed and checked in the field to make sure they are properly built. That’s a problem.

ANNA WERNER: Peter Yanev is an earthquake engineer and consultant.

PETER YANEV: That, obviously, the system is not doing what it’s supposed to do.

ANNA WERNER: And it’s not just the thousands of uncertified school projects. California has another major problem: old schools that were constructed before stricter building codes took effect in 1978.

State Sen. Ellen Corbett, a longtime earthquake safety advocate, commissioned a study to identify those schools over a decade ago.

ELLEN CORBETT, D, California state senator: There wasn’t statewide information about where the needs were.

ANNA WERNER: Corbett’s study produced this list, more than 7,500 school buildings statewide considered most at risk. One of them: Philadelphia Elementary in Pomona.

District Administrator Scott Stark:

SCOTT STARK, Pomona Unified School Director: We have got schools that are old and that have been deteriorating over the years.

ANNA WERNER: State evaluators said four of Philadelphia’s seven buildings are likely not to perform well in an earthquake. But the school hasn’t received any state funds to fix them.

SCOTT STARK: We didn’t qualify for funding, or what was considered by those standards the DSA put out as a seismically vulnerable, critical site.

ANNA WERNER: In fact, an analysis by California Watch shows just 38 of the 7,500 most vulnerable school buildings even qualified for funding. Why? To be eligible, a district had to show that an earthquake would subject a school to an intense level of ground shaking or what is called g-forces of 1.7 g’s.

PETER YANEV: These are very, very large earthquake forces.

ANNA WERNER: That’s a requirement some experts say exceeds ground shaking during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a requirement Yanev says doesn’t take all risks into consideration.

PETER YANEV: In fact, some schools that are in lower earthquake areas undoubtedly are higher-hazard, because they are older, not built as well, built to all the criteria, et cetera.

ANNA WERNER: Undoubtedly are higher-hazard?

PETER YANEV: Absolutely, higher-hazard.

ANNA WERNER: So, they have left some schools, essentially, out of the equation?

PETER YANEV: I would expect that to be the case, yes.

ANNA WERNER: In fact, documents reveal the DSA’s own structural engineers recommended using a lower ground shaking number of 1.35 g’s. So what led the state to set the number so much higher? Liability. Documents show state officials worried that with a lower number, too many schools would be classified as vulnerable and yet sit unaddressed.

SCOTT HARVEY: You have suddenly created an unfunded liability for which somebody has got to be responsibility.

ANNA WERNER: So, to avoid that, documents show state officials simply raised the number to 1.7 g’s to limit the number of schools eligible, despite knowing some at-risk school buildings would not qualify.

And Harvey’s explanation for raising the number?

SCOTT HARVEY: The rationale was to ensure that we were taking care of the worst of the worst, starting at a point where we would not exhaust the dollars available.

ANNA WERNER: So, what about the schools left potentially at risk that were shut out of funding?

Does that mean that those schools would not be equally vulnerable?

SCOTT HARVEY: No, it doesn’t mean that.

ANNA WERNER: Did they know that?

SCOTT HARVEY: You will have to ask them.

ANNA WERNER: So, we asked Pomona’s Scott Stark.

SCOTT STARK: That’s…

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT STARK: OK. Yes, very interesting. There was nothing in the guideline that came down to us that said, oh, by the way, this was based on the fact that we have only got so much money, and so we are trying to exclude schools, if — assuming what you are telling me is true. We had no knowledge of that.

ANNA WERNER: It is something the legislation sponsor didn’t know either.

ELLEN CORBETT: Hearing that information is very shocking. It sounds like they weren’t doing the best they could have been doing for our children. And that should never be the case here, ever.

ANNA WERNER: In the end, just two schools got that state funding, which leads to the real question: Are California schools safe for children when that next big earthquake comes?

There, even acting Director Harvey admits:

SCOTT HARVEY: I don’t really know. I’m hopeful that we have done the best we can to insurance that kids are safe in their schools.

Back in Pescadero, that is not a comforting answer.

MAN: They just don’t know. They honestly don’t know. And that is the scariest thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That report was based on research done by California Watch, affiliated with the Center on Investigative Reporting. There’s a link to more of their reporting on our website.