Douglas County schools are working to receive seismic upgrade grants from the state to improve buildings that have been identified as having a very high potential for collapse during a major earthquake.
The schools were rated by the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Oregon, which was tasked in 2005 by the Oregon Senate to perform a statewide seismic needs assessment of critical facilities, including public schools and community college buildings.
A 2016 revision of Douglas County’s natural hazard mitigation plan, put together by the county’s planning and emergency management departments, shows nine buildings have a “very high” or 100 percent chance of collapsing during a major earthquake — all of them are school buildings. In total, 27 buildings in Douglas County were identified as having a “high” level of potential collapse. Sixteen of those are school buildings.
Oregon lies near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the major 620-mile fault that stretches from Northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino California and separates the Juan de Fuca Tectonic Plate and the North American Tectonic Plate.
According to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the subduction zone “has produced magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquakes in the past, and undoubtedly will in the future.”
The last major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest was in January 1700, and great earthquakes have occurred at least seven times in the last 3,500 years, returning every 400 to 600 years, according to the network.
The assessment, which was completed in 2007, consisted of rapid visual screenings, a process for visually inspecting a building for 15 to 30 minutes and assessing its level of vulnerability, according to the county’s mitigation plan. The screening does not include an in-depth structural assessment.
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In the Roseburg school district, only Green Elementary School was among the facilities having a “very high” risk of collapse. Melrose, Rose, Sunnyslope and Winchester elementary schools were listed as having a “high” risk of collapse.
Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Gerry Washburn said many of the district’s schools are old buildings that were built before modern building codes were established.
“They are subject to significant damage if we were to have an earthquake tomorrow,” he said, just like any other building built before the 1970s.
After the results of the 2007 assessment were returned, Washburn said the school district had an engineering firm perform a structural evaluation of its schools in 2008.
Based on that engineering assessment, the district planned to upgrade its schools when it receives state seismic upgrade grants, which is a competitive process between nearly 200 public school districts in Oregon.
“The buildings that qualify for seismic grants are most at risk of being damaged by an earthquake,” Washburn said. “And we are mitigating that as fast as we can.”
Since completion of the initial visual assessment, only the Roseburg High School gymnasium has been upgraded through a seismic grant of $1.5 million received in 2013-14. Of the seven high school buildings, four were built before 1972, such as the Heritage Building, but they must wait their turn in the grant application process, school officials said.
The Roseburg school district has recently received four other seismic grants for Green, Hucrest and Fullerton IV elementary schools, each receiving about $1.5 million. Melrose Elementary School received almost $900,000 in grants.
“Luckily with these grants we’ll be able to address the issues with our buildings that have the biggest issues,” Washburn said.
District Chief Operations Officer Cheryl Northam said the estimated dates of seismic upgrades will take place in the summer of 2018 for Fullerton and Green, with Melrose and Hucrest scheduled for the summer of 2019.
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Although many of the buildings within the school district are old, Northam is confident that they are safe, because the district has a physical plant manager with 12 maintenance staff and additional custodial staff overseeing the facilities, with a budget of more than a million dollars.
Roseburg Public Schools Physical Plant Manager Tracy Grauf said he and his crew are unable to upgrade building structures that are vulnerable to earthquakes because they are major renovations that require outside resources and manpower.
But his crew can inspect rooms for immediate hazards such as ensuring bookcases and large pieces of furniture are secured to walls. His staff also can remove objects stored high on shelves that can fall onto people below.
He also said that the district holds earthquake and evacuation drills so children and staff are prepared for an earthquake. The district is also planning to place survival buckets with emergency supplies within each classroom in the event of a disaster so students and staff are prepared in case they’re trapped for an extended period of time.
“We are limited to what we can do, but we’ve been working hard at building emergency plans and teaching the administrators and teachers how to respond to an earthquake,” Grauf said. “We’re making plans and preparing with the resources that we have.”
Other school buildings in Douglas County visually rated with a “very high” level of collapse were Glide High School, the Umpqua Community College Educations Skills Building and Whipple Fine Arts Building, Canyonville School, Coffenberry School, North Douglas Elementary School and Riddle High School.