Safety and security in schools is a top priority throughout the nation with one of the main concerns being the buildings themselves.

The vast majority of schools built in Douglas County were constructed before Oregon adopted statewide building codes in 1971 and were built with no, or very limited, seismic design.

Oregon passed laws in 2001 that required public schools to rehabilitate to a life-safety performance level by 2032, because according to the Western States Seismic Policy Council, children have the right to be safe in schools during an earthquake.

“It’s something you can’t put off,” North Douglas School District Superintendent Terry Bennett said. “We are really fortunate in the district, but you don’t get to predict when the earthquake hits.”

Oregon has experienced four moderate earthquakes in the last century. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake that occurred during spring break 1993 damaged Molalla High School to the point where it was deemed unsafe for students.

Bennett, who started in his position in July, said North Douglas School District is moving forward with plans to upgrade its buildings.

The school district in Drain isn’t the only one working to seismically improve the buildings. It’s a concern for nearly every school district in the state.

Douglas County public buildings were subject to a Rapid Visual Screenings from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in 2006. Eleven of the 102 buildings were deemed to have a very high, or 100%, collapse rating. All of those 11 buildings were educational facilities: Canyonville School, North Douglas Elementary School, Glide High School, Coffenberry Middle School, Riddle High School, Myrtle Creek Elementary School, Lookingglass Elementary School, Roseburg High School, Green Elementary School, and Umpqua Community College’s Educational Support Building and the Whipple Fine Arts Center.

Of the full sample of 2,018 K-12 schools in the state, 12% received the very high collapse rating using the Federal Emergency Management Agency 154 methodology.

Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries Interim Legislative Coordinator Robert Houston explained that a qualified screener estimated the risk based on seismicity zone, building structural type, building irregularities, original construction type and soil type during the screening. He pointed out it’s not an engineering study.

School districts can receive up to $2.5 million in grants per seismic project through the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program of Business Oregon and applications must include an engineering assessment and benefit-cost analysis.

To be eligible for the grant, the proposed retrofits must upgrade the building to meet life-safety earthquake standards.

Schools can apply for the Technical Assistance Program through the Oregon Department of Education to help pay for seismic assessments up to $25,000.

For some projects, the grant money will pay to rehabilitate buildings to the life-safety performance level, while others might be significantly more costly to undertake or would require additional construction at the same time that could be a financial burden on a school district.

It’s been 13 years since those rapid visual inspections were done and school districts have 13 more years to get buildings to meet life-safety seismic standards, so here’s a look at what has been done throughout the county:

Lookingglass Elementary School and Glide High School both had to rebuild after fires damaged the buildings that were deemed unsafe. Glide High School’s library and science rooms burned down in 2008 and the Lookingglass Elementary gymnasium, which was the building deemed unsafe, was destroyed in a fire in 2016.

Winston-Dillard School District Superintendent Kevin Miller said the metal gymnasiums, such as the one constructed at Lookingglass Elementary School, typically do very well during seismic events.

Myrtle Creek Elementary School demolished its old gymnasium that received a very high collapse rating. A new gymnasium with classrooms was built at the Coffenberry Middle School, which sits across from the elementary school.

Green Elementary School was upgraded in recent years to be more structurally sound with the help of the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program.

Umpqua Community College will start seismic work on the Whipple Fine Arts Center this summer and South Umpqua School District continues upgrading Myrtle Creek Elementary School.

South Umpqua School District Superintendent Kate McLaughlin said a facilities advisory subcommittee was formed earlier this year to review its building needs assessments, make recommendations to the board and identify potential funding sources.

“The district has always been well aware that we have aging buildings. Some of our buildings are 70, 80, 90 years old,” McLaughlin said. “The district in the past has tried to remedy some of the larger buildings, the buildings that are older, through bond levies and has been unsuccessful. That’s the reason we’re looking at some of the other options for us.”

The subcommittee, which meets monthly, is expected to make recommendations about the school buildings to the South Umpqua school board in February.

“When we’re talking about buildings that are 70, 80, 90 years old, the reality is without the seismic rehabilitation grants to upgrade them or bond levies, things like that, it’s extensive the work that needs to be done,” McLaughlin said. “Usually when you start looking at retrofitting a building that’s 90 years old and bringing it up to 21st century standards for learning environments, you’re looking at replacement.”

The Heritage Building at Roseburg High School, North Douglas Elementary School, Riddle High School and the Educational Support Building at UCC have seen little to no seismic upgrades in the past 13 years. However, that does not mean that the school districts aren’t looking to upgrade those buildings.

North Douglas is starting to move forward, Riddle High School has reapplied for a seismic grant, the Heritage Building at Roseburg High School has been included in initial discussion surrounding a capital improvement bond, and the community college is expected to reapply for seismic grants for the educational support buildings.

“We’re not in danger of the buildings all of a sudden collapsing,” said Jess Miller, the college’s facilities and security director. “You’re looking at a significant seismic event that could potentially cause those buildings to collapse. And even then, I don’t know that collapse is the right term, they would be damaged significantly.”

Administrators for several districts pointed out that the inspections done by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries were rapid visual screenings and the language used is vexing because it’s not based on structural engineering.

“It was problematic to see something like that, that doesn’t have an engineering component,” Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cordon said. “If that’s going to be a published document from the state of Oregon that questions the engineering on a fail rate, without engineering work done, I struggle with that, because the authenticity of that should be accurate — especially when it comes to student safety.”

Houston said the 100% collapse rating means there’s a very high probability of collapse of “important structural members” of a building, although he did note that the report is based on limited observed and analytical data.

“More detailed structural investigation by qualified and experienced engineers is required to fully assess the seismic risks and rehabilitation issues of any one building,” Houston said.

And that’s exactly what Roseburg Public Schools did when it came to the Heritage Building on the Roseburg High School campus.

Architect Paul Bentley advised the board in early December that a partial analysis by a structural engineer showed that the Heritage building isn’t nearly as bad as the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries report in 2006 indicated.

Cascade Region Earthquake Workgroup noted the biggest earthquake hazard is the Cascade subduction zone, which is expected to produce a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

“Cascadia, or something huge like it, could cause problems,” Miller said. “But guess what, it’s going to cause a lot of problems everywhere.”

Miller said the community college withstood smaller earthquakes and none of the buildings sustained any damage.

“They are good quality buildings,” Miller said about the buildings on the UCC campus. “They were structurally sound as they were built, but the opportunity is here to make them even safer for our students and that’s what we’re planning to do.”

McLaughlin echoed that for the South Umpqua School District saying, “We would not have students in the buildings if they weren’t safe. The health and safety of students and staff is always our number one concern.”

In addition to seismic upgrades to buildings that were deemed to have a very high collapse rating, districts have also been upgrading schools with lower risks to adhere to the new guidelines and ensure that structures are safer.

“I’m not an engineer but I do feel an intense responsibility to make sure we’re putting kids in buildings that are safe,” Cordon said. “Which is why we need to get people in there that understand structural engineering better than I do to say ‘Is this building safe or not.’”

Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203.

Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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