In Wake of Soviet Earthquake, Experts Call For ‘Seismically Resistant’ Schools in U.S.

By Ellen Flax — January 18, 1989 7 min read

When the earth began to tremble in Soviet Armenia last month, the schools could offer no protection.

Of the approximately 25,000 who died in the republic’s devastating mid-day earthquake, a disproportionate number were children crushed by poorly constructed and unreinforced school buildings.

And U.S. experts say that though school officials here can take some comfort in the fact that their facilities are generally better constructed than those in Armenia, they should not assume--as many do--that a similar tragedy could not happen in their district.

Seismologists stress that damaging earthquakes could occur in virtually all parts of the country during the next several decades. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 70 million people in 44 states are at some risk.

Yet, with the exception of California and a few communities in other states, the precautions being taken in terms of building requirements and personnel training is minimal at best, according to knowledgable observers.

“We have got some awfully exposed schools,” asserts John J. Nance, a Tacoma, Wash., author who has studied the problem. “When a quake in Quebec shakes brittle school buildings down to New York, then we know we should be doing something.”

Not Just California’s Problem

Although California’s earthquake risk has been widely publicized, the public remains generally unaware, experts say, that some of the most serious earthquakes ever to hit North America occured east of the Rocky Mountains. For example:

In 1811-12, three earthquakes registering between 8.4 and 8.7 on the Richter scale hit the Missouri town of New Madrid, halfway between Memphis and St. Louis. Two million square miles were affected by these shocks.

The quake in Armenia, in contrast, registered only 6.9 on the Richter scale, and the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was registered at 8.3.

In 1886, a quake registering 7.7 hit Charleston, S.C., killing more than 60 people.

And Cape Anne, Mass., experienced a major quake in 1755, one of several that have hit the area encompassing New England and eastern Canada.

Other centers of great seismic activity include the areas surrounding the Puget Sound in Washington State; Anchorage, Alaska; the Wasatch Front in Utah; and Puerto Rico.

Although they acknowledge that projections cannot be entirely precise, most seismologists say that the East and Midwest should be braced for future damaging earthquakes.

According to Robert Ketter, director of the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo, about one major quake can be expected to occur on the East Coast every 100 years.

There is a 95-percent-or-greater chance, he estimates, that a quake registering 7 or more on the Richter scale will occur in the eastern United States by the year 2010.

Experts at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, located at Memphis State University, believe that the area covered by the New Madrid earthquake will almost certainly face another major quake by the middle of the next century.

No ‘Chicken Little’

Despite these predictions, earthquake experts say that few steps have been taken outside California to ensure that schools will be able to withstand--and students and school personnel survive--a major quake.

Schools, they say, may be especially susceptible to quake-related damages. Many have been built with unreinforced masonry that will collapse during an earthquake. And others contain heavy light fixtures and bookshelves that could fall when the tremors begin.

In addition, the experts say, chemicals for science classes are often improperly stored, and could be dislodged in a quake, creating fires and toxic hazards.

Many area residents would seek shelter at a school during a crisis, emergency-planners say, and others would search there for their school-age children. It is, thus, especially important, they assert, that schools be “seismically resistant.”

Findings from a new study funded by fema support this view. They show that in the area surrounding Charleston, S.C.--the site of a previous quake--more than 90 percent of the schools have inadequate, unreinforced-masonry construction.

Because the Charleston schools are densely populated, the study says, more than half of the deaths that would occur during a day-time quake there would be in schools.

“We need to sensibly and seriously--no ‘Chicken Little'--come to grips with this and mitigate the effects of such a possible event,” says Charles Lindbergh, author of the fema study and a professor of civil engineering at The Citadel in Charleston.

A State Model

California, the best-prepared state in the country, according to most experts, serves now as the only model in the field.

Within a month of a 1933 earthquake in Long Beach, the California legislature adopted a law requiring all public-school construction projects to be reviewed by the office of the state architect for their seismic provisions. All pre-1933 buildings had been refitted or abandoned by 1977.

Last year, lawmakers voted to require that schools train their staff members in earthquake-emergency procedures. And the state department of education was ordered to devise a compliance plan for a 1984 law that required schools to develop an earthquake-emergency plan and hold periodic drills.

In addition, the state attorney general ruled in 1966 that individual school-board members can be held liable for the injuries sustained by occupants of a school building, if the building had been found to be unsafe and no steps were taken.

Many California students have also received earthquake education, which combines scientific information with safety instructions.

So far, California officials say, the regulations have worked when it has counted most: during a quake.

Schools constructed under the seismic-provisions regulation have consistently come through natural disasters better than pre-1933 schools, they say, most recently in the 1987 quake in Whittier.

In fact, says Patrick Campbell, the chief structural engineer in the office of the state architect, “school buildings have performed better than the general buildings that have been constructed.”

‘Woefully Unprepared’

Nationally, however, fewer than half of the states have adopted codes for new construction that include seismic provisions. And because states frequently allow local jurisdictions to alter these codes, many schools continue to be built without regard to seismic concerns.

Although fema estimates that it would cost only an additional 1.5 percent to construct new schools with adequate seismic provisions, many school officials blanch at the idea of performing costly renovations on older buildings.

“If they think about the structures, they don’t want to do anything,” says Linda Noson, a natural-hazard specialist in fema’s Bothell, Wash., office. “They just think about the dollar signs.”

Even in areas known to be at high risk, according to experts, neither school nor state officials have enforced their existing safeguards, which some believe to be inadequate.

In Memphis, for example, city and county authorities have yet to adopt a new building code, and most existing schools are “very susceptible” to earthquake damage, according to Jill Stevens, manager of the seismic resource center at Memphis State.

Teachers are not required to learn emergency procedures, she adds, and part of the center’s education efforts have been cut since a fema grant expired in 1986.

“We have to tell [people], ‘Look, this is something that could happen,”’ she said. “And they say, ‘We’ve lived here all our lives and we have never felt an earthquake.”’

“We are woefully unprepared to do what is necessary if there was an earthquake,” Ms. Stevens concludes.

James Harris, superintendent of the North Panola (Miss.) Consolidated School District, located about 60 miles south of Memphis, agrees: “I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people in this area are not adequately educated about earthquakes.”

Federal Projects

In both the schools and the federal government, however, there hasbeen greater interest in earthquake-related activites since 1977, when the Congress adopted the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act.

But Congressional staff members say that because earthquakes are generally perceived to be a distant threat, funding for national programs has not kept pace with inflation. In 1978, $53 million was targeted for these programs; this year, $65 million was appropriated.

The lion’s share of this money has gone into research, with a small fraction earmarked for fema, which is charged with overseeing education efforts.

Pilot earthquake-education projects begun with fema money are continuing in about 15 states, which have allocated their own funds for the undertaking.

In others, such as Idaho, projects independent of fema are being undertaken. Next month, for example, the Idaho Board of Education is expected to receive a report it commissioned that reviews the seismic risk of state schools.

Yet, for some, earthquake-education programs are no substitute for stronger building codes.

“If children are in a building that won’t hold up in an earthquake, being under a desk won’t help them,” says Katharyn Ross, an educational specialist with the nceer in Buffalo.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as In Wake of Soviet Earthquake, Experts Call For ‘Seismically Resistant’ Schools in U.S.