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Calif. School Seeks Aid To Flee 'Triad of Terror'

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Earthquake-evacuation drills at Castaic Elementary School in California offer few sure routes out of what school officials there call the "triad of terror."

Sitting about two miles from the base of the dammed 323,000-acre Castaic Lake, the school's campus is also threaded by high-voltage power lines and underground crude-oil pipelines. If a severe tremor were to strike--setting off fires in the pipelines or knocking down power lines--the school's 1,200 fleeing students could face fire, an electric minefield, or a wall of water.

The district's two-year quest for money to move the school out of harm's way, however, may be over. Federal officials said last week they may approve disaster assistance to relocate the school by the end of the month.

"The prospects look very good," said Jay Jazayeri, a mitigation officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in California. "I don't see any snags in the process."

The FEMA approval could not come soon enough for residents of Castaic, a town near the Los Padres National Forest about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. They passed in 1993 a $20 million bond issue to relocate the district's middle school, but they taxed themselves beyond the state's permitted maximum.

Century-Old Site

Meanwhile, other California schools have received millions of dollars in FEMA grants to brace light fixtures and replace ceiling tiles.

"We're waiting with bated breath," said James Estes, the district's director of business and personnel.

Castaic schools have been on the site of the elementary school since the district was founded in 1889. But the Northridge earthquake that rattled the Los Angeles area in January 1994 showed school officials how modern amenities have made the area potentially hazardous.

That quake caused one of the pressurized crude-oil pipelines that run through the campus to rupture in eight places--including two near the school.

The earthen dam, built in the 1970s, is believed to be strong enough to withstand most quakes, but it poses the greatest threat. A severe break could swamp the campus with water from the 330-foot-deep lake in three to five minutes, according to state estimates cited by the district.

The cost of relocating the school, which was built in 1928 and added to in later years, will reach almost $10 million. Castaic school officials hope to pay for the bulk of that with $7.3 million in Northridge-related federal disaster assistance.

Headaches and Delays

But navigating the federal government's rules and regulations has meant a series of delays and headaches for the district.

Castaic's Mr. Estes said that FEMA officials used to working with private-sector companies were puzzled by the state's quake-proofing standards for school construction--standards that often boost costs.

Also, responsibility for the Castaic grant seemed to change hands frequently at FEMA.

"Every time we'd get to the bottom line," Mr. Estes said, "a new player would come in for FEMA and change the rules."

Mr. Jazayeri of the federal agency blamed the delay on miscommunication between school and FEMA officials that led to problems with the school's grant application. Building a new school also requires an exhaustive environmental survey of the proposed site--surveys not required when strengthening existing structures.

Should the grant hit more trouble, FEMA might face some unexpected heavy pressure. Officials for the CBS news show "60 Minutes" have expressed interest in featuring Castaic's plight.

"You could sit on the dam," Mr. Estes said, "and with a telephoto lens, you could look right into the classrooms."

Meanwhile, in Utah, seismic-safety experts are criticizing Gov. Michael O. Leavitt for ignoring their recommendations to earmark state dollars to strengthen public buildings in the state. Estimates put the cost of quake-proofing Utah's schools at roughly $300 million. (See Education Week, Nov. 30, 1994.)

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