Well-Prepared Schools Mostly Spared In California’s Devastating Earthquake

October 25, 1989 4 min read

By Michael Newman

Effective training of staff and students in emergency procedures, sturdy architecture, and sheer luck combined to leave schools mostly intact and students unharmed after last week’s violent earthquake in northern California, officials said.

“This is obviously something that we’ve been prepared for,” said William Rukeyser, a spokesman for the state department of education. “Our emergency procedures worked very well.”

California’s strict building codes for schools--adopted after a 1933 earthquake in Long Beach--ensure that all public schools in the state are seismically sound, Mr. Rukeyser noted. And the timing of the temblor, at 5:04 P.M. (P.D.T.) on Oct. 17, was such that most students were not in school when it hit.

Two days after the earthquake, the vast majority of the San Francisco Bay Area’s approximately 750,000 students were back in school. No injuries or deaths to students, teachers, or staff in school were reported.

However, some experts warned last week that the Bay Area schools’ relatively swift recovery from the quake would be difficult to duplicate elsewhere.

“If that earthquake had happened anywhere in the East, there would have been significantly greater property damage and personal injury and loss of life,” said Charles Lindbergh, a professor of civil engineering at The Citadel in South Carolina.

Mr. Lindbergh is author of a Federal Emergency Management Agency study that found most schools surrounding Charleston, S.C., probably would not survive a major earthquake. The city was devastated in 1886 by a quake estimated to have registered 7.7 on the Richter scale.

Indeed, most schools anywhere in the East, he said, would probably not survive a major quake. Other experts have echoed this assertion, and have also stressed that earthquakes can occur in virtually all parts of the country, (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1989.)

Buildings Intact

In the aftermath of the Bay Area earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, many school officials said they were relieved to find buildings intact, bus routes passable or easily made so, and staff and students cooperative.

  • In Alameda County, where the collapse of Interstate 880 wasthought to have killed scores of motorists, schools were mostly intact, said Suzanne Barba, a spokesman for the district.

“The integrity of the buildings seems to have held up,” she said. The district inspected and upgraded all its schools in the past few years, she said, and it “was money well spent.”

Most of the county’s schools were opened last week. Those in Oakland and Berkeley, which enroll 60,000 of the county’s 179,000 students, were expected to open this week.

  • Teachers in San Francisco spent time in class last week “discussing catastrophes like this one and how to deal with them,” said Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines.

“Emotionally, it will take some time” for the city’s 66,000 students and their teachers to recover from the tragedy, he said.

He praised the staff of the city’s 30 after-school child-care centers, who sheltered and comforted their students on the day of the quake.

“They handled the situation expertly,” he said, noting that there were no injuries or deaths.

Ninety-nine of the district’s 112 schools were open last Thursday, he said, with more scheduled to open on Friday.

  • About 30,000 students in Santa Cruz County, just south of the quake’s epicenter, were excused from classes for the week.

“We want to be sure we’re through the aftershock period, and that we have adequate time for surveys and repairs,” said Frank W. Cooper, the district’s superintendent.

He said most school-bus routes were passable, “and the ones that aren’t we can detour [around].”

The main highway through the county, like some of the freeways closer to the bay, sustained heavy damage. But Mr. Cooper said the road was not crucial to school transportation.

Most other Bay-Area counties reported little disruption of school affairs.

Only in Santa Clara County--where the earthquake’s epicenter was located--were there long delays in school openings. Even then, said a county spokesman, about 200,000 of the county’s 225,000 students were back in school by the end of last week.

And in San Benito, a mainly rural county about 50 miles south of the bay, preliminary indications lastweek were that at least some of the county’s 7,000 students were back in school last week.

But in Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Monterey counties, officials reported all schools were open late last week for those counties’ approximately 255,000 students.

The Bay Area received supplies and personnel last week from the city of Charleston, S.C., where Hurricane Hugo devastated schools and other buildings last month.

As of last week, school officials said, all South Carolina students were back in class. Estimates of the damages to schools there reach $85 million, with about $55 million worth of damage in the city of Charleston.

School officials in northern California said last week that it was too early to estimate the cost of repairing schools there.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Well-Prepared Schools Mostly Spared In California’s Devastating Earthquake