In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami rocked the Pacific basin from coast to coast. And even though damage on the North American coast was minimal, especially relative to the cities swept out of existence in Japan, it was a sharp wake-up to school districts up and down the Oregon coastline.
Oregon’s coast is largely low, flat, and exposed. And prior to 2011, seismic risk was evaluated on rather a different scale. Tohoku caused a rush to re-evaluate, and hundreds of schools have been found at “high risk of collapse” in any major earthquake event. Some of those, the state has known about since 2007. But the Great Recession and a host of other budget shortfalls have delayed attempts to rectify the situation.
At Corbett Middle School, an entire lower floor to the school has been condemned for years. Corbett District Superintendent Randi Trani has tried three times to pass a bond measure on local ballots to fix the school, which he’s been told by structural engineers would simply “pancake,” or collapse directly in on itself in the event of a major earthquake. He said those measures all failed for “the usual reasons.”
The usual reasons are, of course, the ones with dollar signs. Two thirds of the homes in the area are owned by out-of-town retirees who don’t want the taxes on their vacation home to go up to pay for a school they have no stake in. Even the locals think that the state should be the one paying the tab, instead of local levies.
Luckily, state help is finally on the horizon. This year, the Oregon Legislature committed $175 million for school retrofits. Leaps and bounds past their former record contribution of $15 million. But still comparatively small change. Portland’s strong tax base has recently passed a nearly $500 million bond for only 26 schools. But at least it’s progress.
Community education is likely the key to the shortfalls. That’s why parents and staff at schools across the state have begun organizing preparedness fairs, in which other parents and community members can be walked through their schools’ level of readiness, including what it still needs to be a place of refuge. Just in case.