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Most schools would not be 'life safe' during Cascadia quake in state's largest districts

Students take cover beneath desks during an earthquake drill.

Authorities say there's a nearly 40 percent chance a massive earthquake will potentially devastate Oregon within the next 50 years.

“It is geologically inevitable,” Ali Ryan Hansen, the communications director for Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, told KATU regarding the quake.

But is your child’s school ready for it?

KATU’s On Your Side Investigators found out how many local schools would keep students safe during the earthquake and how many would not.

"Did you leave without me?” Shannon Duncan asked her 3-year-old daughter, Amari, as she tried hiding beneath play equipment at a park in Portland. “You're leaving without me?!"

Duncan, Amari and Amari’s father, Darien Sensabaugh, moved here about three years ago from Oakland, California where earthquakes are far more common.

“They can be very scary,” Duncan said.

“I was in high school and I had just left my school and went home. And my mom just came through the door,” Sensabaugh said, recalling a quake. “When she closed the door the whole house just shook, just went left and right. Everything knocked off the shelf, everything."

As frightening as that was for Sensabaugh, geologists predict the quake set to rock Oregon will be larger than any on record in California.

It’s called a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake and Hansen said it will measure more than 8.0 in magnitude on the Richter scale.

"Subduction zones make bigger earthquakes than any other kind of earthquakes,” Hansen explained.

The possible devastation: In 2008, a 7.9 magnitude quake -- smaller than what's expected here -- killed more than 5,000 students after leveling thousands of school rooms in Sichuan, China.

The last time Oregon saw a quake near that size was in 1700.

”Bottom line is Oregon will have another Cascadia earthquake. In the next 50 years the odds are right about 40 percent,” Hansen said. “If I was a betting woman, I would take that to the track. … We can’t say for sure when it’s gonna happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be in 50 years. It could be in a hundred years.”

A decade-old government study predicted about a thousand schools statewide would likely collapse in a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake.

Hansen said authorities weren't aware of the danger the zone off the coastline posed until well after many schools were built.

“It wasn't until the early '90s that scientific consensus was that Cascadia was active,” Hansen said.

By 2032, all schools statewide are required to meet what's called the "life safety" standard as funding is available.

”Life safety is that the building is going to remain standing during the shaking and it's going to be able to be safely evacuated,” said Hansen. “It doesn't necessarily mean that the building will be usable after a big earthquake."

As schools held safety drills, state lawmakers have allocated $309 million to school districts for seismic improvements since 2009.

But it may just be a drop in the bucket.

No state agency could provide KATU with a firm estimate on what all of the upgrades will cost, though it's likely several billion dollars.

Districts are required to report improvements to the state, but Hansen said her office can't say how many schools now meet the life safety standard.

”We are looking to do an update of the database sometime in the next two years,” Hansen said.

Not wanting to wait that long, KATU did some updating of its own.

We found out the majority of schools in the state's five most-populous districts don't meet the life safety standard.

Oregon’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, continues to retrofit buildings but currently, a spokesman said only four of its 79 schools are life safe -- just 5 percent.

“Oh, no. That’s not good,” Duncan said upon learning the percentage.

“I know many parents are terrified about this,” said Sensabaugh. ”We're terrified that we're hearing this."

Meanwhile, Salem-Keizer Public Schools says 63 percent of its schools would provide a safe exit during a major seismic event but stopped short of saying they're life safe.*

In Beaverton, 86 percent of the district's schools meet or exceed the standard, according to authorities.

Officials said 33 percent of schools are life safe** in the Hillsboro School District.

And in the North Clackamas School District, a spokesman said 36 percent of the schools are life safe.

“As parents, we're concerned when we're at work (about) the safety of our kids,” said Sensabaugh.

"Losing her life and any other kid's life would just ... It's scary,” Duncan said while holding her daughter.

Each district told KATU it's in the process of retrofitting multiple school buildings and either using or considering to use bonds to help pay for it.

To check on the assessment results for your child’s school in the 2007 state survey, click here, then click on the school's county to find a list of assessed buildings including schools. To find out about seismic upgrades to schools in your child's school district following the 2007 survey, including any upgrades reported to the state by your child's school, click here.

Below is a list of schools that officials said currently meet the life safety standard in each of the five most-populous school districts in Oregon and/or would provide a safe exit during a major seismic event:

Portland Public Schools

Alameda Elementary School

Faubion School

Franklin High School

Roosevelt High School


Salem-Keizer Public Schools

Auburn Elementary School

Battle Creek Elementary School

Brush College Bush Elementary School

Candalaria Elementary School

Cesar Chavez Elementary School

Chapman Hill Elementary School

Englewood Elementary School

Forest Ridge Elementary School

Gubser Elementary School

Hallman Elementary School

Hammond Elementary School

Harritt Elementary School

Highland Elementary School

Hoover Elementary School

Kalapuya Elementary School

Keizer Elementary School

Lamb Elementary School

Lee Elementary School

Liberty Elementary School

Mary Eyre Elementary School

McKinley Elementary School

Miller Elementary School

Morningside Elementary School

Myers Elementary School

Pringle Elementary School

Richmond Elementary School

Schirle Elementary School

Scott Elementary School

Sumpter Elementary School

Swegle Elementary School

Weddle Elementary School

Wright Elementary School

Claggett Creek Middle School

Leslie Middle School

Straub Middle School

Whiteaker Middle School

West Salem High School

Barbara Roberts High School

*Michael Wolfe, the chief operating officer for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, also sent KATU a statement saying, in part:

“I have attached three pages extracted from the State of Oregon Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program (SRGP) that identify significant progression of state building codes in Oregon and on a National level. You will note that all building types constructed prior to 1976 are considered Pre-Code in Oregon, since this is the date of a statewide code adoption in Oregon. All buildings are considered at-risk if constructed prior to 1976.

In a similar fashion, State of Oregon building codes acknowledged a heightened seismic risk and prescribed ductile detailing in the 1997 UBC, which was adopted October 1, 1998.

Incremental steps were codified prior to this between 1976 and 1997, this is represented in the attached table. The last table is extracted from the Rapid Visual Screening (RVS) guidance and denotes the Benchmark years for each general building construction type. Wood is considered post-Benchmark in 1976. Most other materials are considered post-Benchmark after the 1994 or 1997 code adoption.

Please note that this same Table originates with the ASCE 41-13 document and is intended to acknowledge the reduced risk of collapse posed by buildings which are post-Benchmark. HOWEVER, this is heavily qualified upon a parallel EVALUATION for Life Safety performance per the appropriate checklists. This step is critical because NOT all post-Benchmark buildings are constructed absent risk of collapse. This is captured in the following directive; “Only buildings designed and constructed in accordance with applicable code, AND evaluated to the Life Safety Performance Level may be considered Benchmark Buildings.”

As for the intent and relevance of the ASCE/SEI 41-13 Seismic Evaluation and Retrofit of Existing Buildings. This publication is written as a complement building standard specifically for evaluating and upgrading existing buildings. This contrasts with the IBC (International Building Code) and the subsequent adoption of the edited version for the State of Oregon (OSSC) which are specifically written for the regulation and safety of new construction. A very small portion of the OSSC is dedicated to existing building evaluation and retrofit under Chapter 34, the majority of this chapter is dedicated to Fire and Occupancy code evaluations, not seismic.

To further validate the choice of the District and our office in employing the ASCE 41-13 publication. The State of Oregon Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program (SRGP) process mandates the use of the evaluation and retrofit procedures to qualify for consideration and ultimately to perform the rehabilitation. Lastly, the BCD (Building Codes Division of the State of Oregon) has identified this document as an Approved Alternate design procedure, thereby legally validating its equivalency to the IBC for existing infrastructure.

Our structural engineer has assessed that these 39 schools would provide for a safe exit during a major seismic event. As we’ve talked about and is highlighted above, the term 'life safety' is a designation associated with a seismic performance level. There are two major components: structural and non-structural. To fully meet the life safety performance level, the building must be evaluated to meet both components. Seismic strengthening efforts typically focus on meeting the structural performance component, which is what we are currently working on with our structural engineer as we prepare for a general obligation bond. We are prioritizing our limited resources to determine the work necessary to provide for a safe exit at all of schools during a major seismic event."


Beaverton School District

Aloha Huber Park

Barnes Elementary School

Bethany Elementary School

Bonny Slope Elementary School

Chehalem Elementary School

Elmonica Elementary School

Errol Hassell Elementary School

Findley Elementary School

Fir Grove Elementary School

Greenway Elementary School

Hiteon Elementary School

Jacob Wismer Elementary School

Kinnaman Elementary School

McKay Elementary School

McKinley Elementary School

Montclair Elementary School

Nancy Ryles Elementary School

Oak Hills Elementary School

Raleigh Hills Elementary School

Raleigh Park Elementary School

Ridgewood Elementary School

Rock Creek Elementary School

Scholls Heights Elementary School

Sexton Mountain Elementary School

Springville K-8

Terra Linda Elementary School

West Tualatin Valley Elementary School

Cedar Park Middle School

Conestoga Middle School

Five Oaks Middle School

Highland Park Middle School

Meadow Park Middle School

Mountain View Middle School

Timberland Middle School

Stoller Middle School

Whitford Middle School

Southridge High School

Sunset High School

Westview High School

Capital Center

International School of Beaverton

Merlo Station High School

Terra Nova High School

New life safe schools opening as of 9/5/17:

Sato Elementary School

(New) Vose Elementary School

Mountainside High School

More information on Beaverton School District schools can be found here.


Hillsboro School District

Free Orchards Elementary School

Imlay Elementary School

Lincoln Street Elementary School

Orenco Elementary School

Patterson Elementary School

Quatama Elementary School

Rosedale Elementary School

Tobias Elementary School

Witch Hazel Elementary School

South Meadows Middle School

Century High School

Liberty High School

**Adam Stewart, Chief Financial Officer for the Hillsboro School District, sent KATU an email saying, in part:

"The term, 'life safety,' particularly when associated with the word 'standard,' could have different meanings to different people. When a project team designs a building to meet current code requirements (meaning seismic), they are designing to what is often termed a 'life safety' level (meaning, the intention of meeting code requirements is to increase the likelihood of getting out of a structure safely, but not necessarily re-occupy it after a seismic event). Getting out safely involves many components in a building, not simply the superstructure (which is primarily what 'seismic upgrades' of existing facilities tend to focus on). Other components that contribute (many of which are not addressed by 'seismic upgrade') include lateral bracing of suspended ceilings and other overhead elements, tie-back of building façades to superstructure (particularly over entryways), etc.

Not to mention the potential of a gas line break/explosion or other system failure, flying debris, etc. that could impact people’s ability to get out of a structure safely…

So…with those caveats in mind ... I can say that we have 12 schools that are considered to be able to provide safe exit during a major seismic event."

Stewart did not immediately respond to an email from a KATU reporter with the following definition of the life safety standard from Business Oregon, the state agency responsible for issuing grants for seismic upgrades for schools:

"Life Safety means that the building won’t collapse, that there are no falling hazards that pose life safety risk and that egress from the building won’t be impeded after an earthquake. Buildings designed to this level will have little or no damage at low levels of ground shaking, with increasing levels of damage at higher levels of ground shaking. At the full design basis level ground shaking, many buildings will have moderate damage and some may not be economically repairable, even though the life safety risk is low. Because of the inherent conservatism of building codes, buildings designed to this life safety level are expected to provide a good degree of life safety to even higher levels of ground shaking than the design basis ground shaking. "


North Clackamas School District

Ardenwald Elementary

Clackamas High School - West

Happy Valley Elementary School

Happy Valley Middle School

Mt. Scott Elementary School

Oregon Trail Elementary School

Rock Creek Middle School

Scouters Mountain Elementary School

Spring Mountain Elementary School

Verne Duncan Elementary School

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