Earthquake News

On the Washington coast, there will be a vote in November about the earthquake safety of schools.

The volcano explosion on January 15 near Tonga served as a sharp reminder of the dangers tsunamis pose. In the Pacific Northwest, where thousands of pupils attend schools that could be affected by a sizable tsunami, this has long been a problem.

Existing schools in Oregon and Washington are being retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. But local tax payers bear a disproportionate share of the cost of moving low-lying schools. In a coastal region of Grays Harbor County, Washington, a vote-by-mail school bond election is currently taking place to determine whether or not voters are willing to pay higher taxes to erect schools that are tsunami-proof.

If local voters approve a bond issue on February 8, Pacific Beach Elementary School, which is located on the Washington coast, will be moved out of the tsunami inundation zone.

Northwest News Network, Tom Banse

If the next Big One, a Cascadia megaquake, occurred during the school day at Pacific Beach Elementary School, around 160 students and their teachers would have about 15 minutes to walk nearly a mile to safety. The low-slung elementary school, built in 1956 and located approximately four blocks from the seaside, would be 29 feet submerged in the worst-case tsunami, according to recent calculations by earthquake and tsunami modelers.

North Beach School District Superintendent Andrew Kelly spoke with the Pacific Beach school's media during a sunny courtyard interview. "Three years ago, we got a not very exciting call that said we were leading the list in the state for (being) among the least safe schools in the entire state of Washington," Kelly recalled.

The other two schools in the district, located in Ocean Shores, are likewise tsunami-prone areas. As a result, Kelly and the North Beach school board suggested to follow the example set a few years prior by the Ocosta School District in Westport, Washington, which is close by. Also similar to what the school districts in Warrenton, Seaside, and Coos Bay, Oregon, did, which was to urge their voters to approve a school bond so that new, earthquake-resistant buildings could be constructed on higher ground.

In terms of tsunami and earthquake activity, Kelly said, "We're essentially attempting to turn one switch from one of the least safe districts in the state of Washington to possibly one of the safest."

The district has a number of choices for moving Pacific Beach Elementary within a three-mile radius, according to the superintendent. There isn't any sufficient high terrain located inside the city borders of Ocean Shores, however it is just down the state route. The bond plan therefore calls for the construction of elevated evacuation platforms above new classrooms at Ocean Shores Elementary and a performing arts complex at the junior/senior high school.

The goal in Ocean Shores, according to Kelly, is to construct two of what are known as tsunami refuges using the most advanced scientific knowledge currently available.

Taxpayers in Oregon have gradually reduced the number of public schools in the tsunami inundation zone to just nine coast-wide institutions.

On the other hand, authorities in Washington State discovered 28 low-lying schools that would likely be hit by a tsunami brought on by the Cascadia Subduction Zone offshore. Around 7,700 children are served by the schools.

Heidi Ross, a North Beach mother, is the parent of three of those students. She said that she voted in favor of raising property taxes in her neighborhood so that tsunami-safe schools could be built, including moving Pacific Beach Elementary, where she serves as the office manager. Ross is now anxiously watching to see if her fellow voters would agree.

When you live so near to the ocean, the sound of the ocean sometimes becomes stronger at night, according to Ross. Sometimes you simply wonder, "Oh my God, is this it?," which is frightening.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has huge ideas
When it comes to protecting schoolchildren from the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis, Washington state has fallen behind every other West Coast state including British Columbia. But that might be drastically altering soon.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of state senators suggested include a referendum on the Washington ballot in November. Their plan, according to Seattle Democrat David Frockt, the primary sponsor, is to issue $500 million in state bonds in order to renovate or move hazardous schools during the following ten years.

There is a critical mass of need and interest, according to Frockt. "We need to take a more holistic approach; we can't simply sort of keep dealing with things piecemeal," the speaker said.

The state senator continued, "I think the chances are quite excellent that we can move forward with anything."

Frockt said that the state's "a little bit remarkable" proposed borrowing for school seismic safety will eventually be repaid through regular general tax receipts.

A special grant fund was established by the Oregon legislature in 2005 to help pay for seismic modifications at nearby schools, hospitals, and fire stations. Periodic sales of state bonds replenish it. The Oregon school seismic rehab program has distributed more than $450 million over the past 15 years to assist local districts in making their school buildings safer in the event of a significant earthquake. In the upcoming two-year budget cycle, an additional $110 million is available for awards, according to the organization Business Oregon.

On Monday, the Washington Legislature will hold the first public hearing on the proposal regarding earthquake safety in schools. It would require the state to foot up to two-thirds of the bill for relocating or bolstering flimsy, aging schools. Local taxpayers would still be required to contribute locally-raised funds in order to have any stake in the outcome. This has been an issue in some tax-averse regions where school districts have struggled to find the motivation or resources to act.

Voters in Seaside, Oregon, had to approve a bond issue twice before it was approved in 2016 to move three schools out of the tsunami zone. All K–12 pupils in the low-lying hamlet have lately started attending a single institution on a hilltop at the outside of town.

The Warrenton-Hammond School District in northwest Oregon passed a $38.5 million bond issue in 2018 to purchase land for the relocation of all of its schools to a new master campus on high ground. This past fall saw the opening of the district's new middle school, the first of three anticipated school moves. To generate the money to relocate the high school and primary school out of the tsunami zone, Warrenton area voters will need to approve one or more additional bond measures.

According to school leaders, asking voters to support local funding proposals requires considerable planning. Tom Rogozinski, superintendent of the Warrenton-Hammond district, commented on his caution about approaching the voters too soon with a request for additional funding: "You're particularly cautious of bond capacity."

In order to ensure that the community can support yet another school tax, Rogozinski stated that he wants to see economic growth that broadens the tax base for real estate. In the end, he said in an interview on Friday, high school and elementary kids will likely continue to attend schools within the tsunami inundation zone for another possibly five to seven years — eight to ten years outside.

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