House committee endorses efforts to protect schools from earthquakes and tsunamis

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OLYMPIA – Sitting along the Cascadia subduction zone, experts say it’s a matter of “if, not when” Washington will experience a large-magnitude earthquake. As the US Geological Survey says eastern Washington is less prone to earthquakes than western Washington, lawmakers across the state are backing a proposal to help schools retrofit their buildings to cope seismic and tsunami hazards.

On Monday, the House Capital Budget Committee presented the proposal to the full House.

According to a Department of Natural Resources analysis of 561 school buildings across the state, 63 percent of them have a “high” or “very high” priority for seismic retrofit. Nine school buildings in the city of Spokane — including the main buildings at Adams Elementary and Libby Center — fall into the “high” priority category.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, has sponsored a bill that would create a grant program for schools looking to upgrade their facilities to deal with the dangers posed by earthquakes or tsunamis. He said the program would provide schools with critical funds to keep students safe.

“We need a whole-of-government approach to shore up these schools in these areas where these kids might be at risk,” Frockt told The Spokesman-Review.

Under the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously last month, eligible schools in areas at high risk of earthquakes and tsunamis could apply for grants to fund construction projects that would remedy to hazards. The grant amount would be at least two-thirds of the cost of the project, but would not be awarded until the school identifies where the rest of the funds will come from.

Schools would apply for grants through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, where an advisory committee would create a priority list of projects to fund. The Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor would take this list and submit requests for funding as part of their capital budget proposal to the Legislative Assembly.

This year’s Senate Supplementary Capital Budget proposal includes $115 million to implement the program, though that number is subject to change as the budget process continues. The House capital budget proposal allocates about $75 million for seismic retrofits, but does not include Frockt’s proposed program.

“I hope I can convince the House to meet me with a commitment on this program somewhere where the Senate has proposed it,” Frockt said. “We’ll have to see where that goes.”

Frockt said state funding for seismic retrofits has always been “piecemeal” — small amount and slow to come out. The grant program, he said, would set in stone a commitment to fund seismic retrofits for years to come.

“By enshrining it in law, you are putting in place a mechanism that will be funded every year,” Frockt said.

The town of Hoquiam is located on the edge of a bay a few miles from the main coast of Washington. The Ministry of Natural Resources has identified it as a very high risk area for earthquakes and tsunamis. According to the department’s school analysis, nine buildings in the Hoquiam School District are a “high” or “very high” priority for earthquake retrofit.

Matt Kemph, facility manager for the Hoquiam School District, said they are constantly looking for cost-effective ways to improve school buildings with the resources they have. However, the resources available are so limited that earthquake retrofits of their aging buildings would have to wait 10 to 15 years.

“Our hands are tied; we have to wait,” Kemph said. “We don’t have the resources.”

But Kemph said he knows the district can’t wait.

“The longer we wait, the more we roll the dice. The more we are going to end up with a catastrophic event,” he said.

A retrofit grant program, Kemph said, would go a long way in helping the district complete its desperately needed seismic upgrades.

“It would offset a large majority of the costs that would be borne by the local community,” he said. “This would allow us to maximize the use of local dollars more effectively and efficiently.”

At the bill’s public hearing in January, supporters of the measure said the risk to students was too great to ignore.

“Forcing our children to attend school buildings that are at risk of collapsing in an earthquake is not acceptable,” DaleAnn Baker, a parent and member of the Washington State Parent Teacher Association, told the committee. Senate Ways and Means.

When the proposal was passed unanimously by the House Capital Budget Committee on Monday, Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, pointed to the broad support behind ensuring that school buildings are safe.

“We all have a real desire to see that our students are safe in the buildings they live in when they’re trying to learn,” Steele said. “We take the safety of our students very seriously.

Frockt said conversations he had with emergency management officials revealed that increased funding was desperately needed to improve earthquake preparedness efforts across the state. He said this grant program is only a small part of that effort.

“I hope I tried to help,” Frockt said. “But, you know, he probably needs a lot more attention.”

The bill establishing the scholarship program has yet to be considered by the full House. The Senate and House capital budget writers will work together to determine how much funding the program will get from this year’s supplemental capital budget.


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