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Make Every School Quake-Safe

Not far from the Cannon Beach City Hall shown in "Deadliest Earthquakes," on quiet Beaver Street just steps from Ecola Creek, is Cannon Beach Elementary, a grade school with 110 students. I often think about the children who attend that school as I work to reduce tsunami hazards on the Pacific Northwest coast.

Cannon Beach Elementary, like three other schools in the Seaside school district, lies smack in the tsunami inundation zone. No one recognized the danger when the school was built. If the Cascadia Fault ruptures during school hours, nine teachers will have to get those 110 children to duck under their desks, cover their heads, and hold on to table legs until the shaking stops. Hopefully the school itself will stand up through the shaking; one of its two wood-framed buildings is highly collapse-prone.

After the shaking, frightened children and stressed teachers may not be able to reach the nearest high ground for safety, because the bridge they would normally use to cross the nearby creek is considered likely to collapse. Instead, the teachers may have to lead their students across Ecola Creek on foot or else walk a half-mile through the shaken town to the Tsunami Evacuation Building (if it is built) or even farther to a designated evacuation site in the hills. If everything goes just right, teachers and children will reach safety just minutes before the tsunami strikes.

I think of those students (and their families) to remind myself what it means to live along the Cascadia fault. Cannon Beach Elementary is typical of many coastal schools in the tsunami zone, built long before scientists had deciphered the risk from Cascadia earthquakes.

Coastal school districts not only have to upgrade their schools to withstand earthquakes, but also consider relocating them out of the tsunami inundation zone entirely or rebuilding them to serve as tsunami evacuation buildings for their communities. The Seaside School District solution is to move all of its schools to high ground, a daunting and costly challenge for a small rural district.

The challenge is not unusual; hundreds of schools in Oregon alone were not built with earthquakes in mind. More than 300,000 Oregon children attend schools at high risk. All those schools need seismic reinforcement to withstand powerful shaking.

I want the children who attend Ecola Elementary and other schools on the coast to know that they can reach safety, and that their town has a tsunami evacuation building to protect them and their neighbors when it is needed.

Oregon's schoolchildren are lucky to grow up in a magnificent part of the Pacific Northwest. They deserve to live in communities that take tsunamis seriously, and in a state that makes every school quake-safe.

In the Pacific Northwest, some of the most powerful earthquakes on earth come with the territory. There is plenty we can do to make sure they are not also the deadliest earthquakes.

 

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Yumei Wang

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