Published Online: July 18, 2011


Buildings, Not Drills, Hold Key to Disaster-Proof Schools

Survivors and relatives pray for dead and missing victims of the Okawa Elementary school in Ishinomaki, Japan, earlier this month. The school was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami; 74 of 108 students and 10 of 13 teachers and staff at the facility were killed.
—Yomiuri Shimbun via AP

The year 2011 capped a cruel winter with a hit parade of nature’s turbulent extremes. Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the cresting Mississippi, wildfires in Arizona and Texas, and deadly tornadoes from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Joplin, Mo., served, each in its own way, as heartbreaking reminders of human vulnerability to natural disaster.

Schools answer vulnerability with preparedness, and for millions of American students that means safety drills. But such exercises fuel an unwarranted complacency when life-threatening hazards go unattended. Consider the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut.

On the last Thursday in April, at 10:15 a.m., more than 3 million students, educators, and other citizens across an 11-state region dropped to the floor, covered their heads, and held on to their desks for 60 seconds. The ShakeOut, an earthquake drill modeled on a California event and endorsed by the Obama administration, marked the bicentennial of the New Madrid, Mo., earthquakes, a swarm of temblors that shook a region—that includes parts of Illinois, Tennessee, and Arkansas with greater-than-magnitude-7 seismic force.

ShakeOut participants included tens of thousands of students in Memphis. Those students dropped, covered, and held on in aging buildings that have never been strengthened to withstand earthquake shaking. As school safety advocates in three cities whose public schools share those deficiencies, that disconnect disturbs us.

"Isn’t it time for state legislators, who mandate school attendance, to sweep complacency aside and fix schools with deadly defects?"

The consensus expectation of all but a few seismologists is that a repeat of the New Madrid quakes would destroy many unreinforced buildings, trapping and killing occupants regardless of whether they followed safety procedures. If the risk is judged high enough to engage millions of participants in a multistate safety drill, isn’t it time for state legislators, who mandate school attendance, to sweep complacency aside and fix schools with deadly defects?

The Mid-South is not the only region facing this conundrum. Others include the rapidly growing Wasatch Front region in Utah, where the 240-mile Wasatch Fault may be girding for an earthquake of magnitude 7, and the Pacific Northwest, where the offshore Cascadia Fault could generate an earthquake and tsunami that would exceed the magnitude-9 quake that shook Japan earlier this year.

The Mid-South, the Wasatch Front, and the Pacific Northwest were each settled during an interval of relative seismic calm. In each region, public policy can scarcely keep up with scientists’ grasp of the risks. And in each one, hundreds of thousands of children attend classes in buildings not designed to protect them on the day that local faults decide to slip.

Utah has taken the first step to gauge the risk, using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to survey 128 school buildings along the Wasatch Front with a “rapid visual screening” method designed to help prioritize safety investments. The survey turned up 77 buildings that needed a closer look, and of those, 46 are believed to be at high or very high risk of collapse. Utah’s Seismic Safety Commission urges expanding the survey to all of the state’s 1,085 K-12 school buildings. But state lawmakers, even in family-friendly Utah, have yet to take up the cause.

Oregon has gone further, completing a statewide survey of 2,186 school buildings, along with fire stations, police stations, and hospitals. The results raised eyebrows: The survey found that 1,018 school buildings, or 47 percent of all K-12 buildings examined, rated high or very high for risk of collapse in a strong earthquake. But efforts to fix risky schools have scarcely begun: A state grant program launched in 2009 and subsequently cut by 25 percent received $7.5 million in life support from legislators in 2011. A couple dozen schools will be fixed, but hundreds remain dangerous.

Memphis, meanwhile, has yet to acknowledge the risk faced by the 113,000 students who attend public schools in that city. The school district’s latest five-year capital plan does not mention the word “earthquake.” Local officials are not blind to the risk; the Hernando De Soto Bridge on I-40 has been strengthened to withstand earthquakes, and seismic retrofits to Memphis International Airport and area trauma centers are being considered. Public schools, apparently, just don’t count as “critical structures.”

We live on a restless earth, and we know a great deal about its danger zones. Throughout America, we locate neighborhoods and schools in those zones, but tend to allow an “it won’t happen here” mentality to prevail.

In too many communities, we persist in quixotic exercises, staging earthquake drills in classrooms that could pancake the day an actual earthquake strikes along one of our dangerous faults.

Drills like ShakeOut have a useful role. They raise awareness and impart knowledge that will save lives. But underdesigned buildings killed thousands of schoolchildren in Sichuan, China, in 2008 and in Haiti in 2010, and underdesigned buildings could kill children here in the United States.

We can’t prevent natural disasters, but we owe it to our children to fix or replace unfit schools that put them in harm’s way. The toll taken by nature’s extremes is largely our choice.

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