179 school buildings in CA too dangerous for quakes

March 22, 2010 9:37:59 AM PDT
According to California Public University records, nearly 180 campus buildings are dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake.

That is according to our media partners at California Watch, an independent, nonpartisan project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. It found that many schools have known about the problems for years, but in many cases have failed to do anything about them.

College students across the state could be injured or killed in 179 buildings on University of California and California State University campuses. That is the conclusion California Watch reporter Erica Perez came to after spending months pouring over public documents.

"Students and faculty and staff who are using these buildings, and there's tens of thousands of people who use these buildings, are essentially taking a risk when they walk in the door," she says.

Perez found that many buildings across the state are known to be potentially dangerous in a major quake.

"There are buildings that would potentially collapse," she says. "They would pose severe risk to life to the people that are in there."

The California Watch investigation found that UC Berkeley had the most unsafe buildings. 71 of them sit precariously near or directly on the Hayward fault. Seismologists say it is long overdue for a catastrophic quake.

"These include dorms, some student apartments, academic buildings and a child care center," Perez says.

The USGS says there is a 50-50 chance California will see a quake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the next 30 years, but universities still have many buildings that need to be seismically upgraded to withstand that strong of a temblor. The universities say they are doing what they can to address these issues, but just do not have enough money to make all the fixes at once.

"One of the difficulties we have though, is that most of our money to fix those buildings comes from the State of California and we all know that that's a challenge these days," says Edward Denton, chancellor of facilities at UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley assessed all of its buildings for seismic stability in 1998.

"We have a lot of very small buildings that are not even on the central campus that are left for seismic upgrades. But, our major large buildings are predominately done," Denton says. "We still have a few left but we have made great progress."

The UC system says it has spent more than $1 billion shoring up seismically unsafe buildings since 1979. California Watch estimates the CSU system has spent more than $480 million on seismic projects since 1987, but problems still exist on those state campuses.

Students and staff are using 28 CSU buildings even though they could collapse in a major earthquake. Another 38 occupied CSU structures are less likely to collapse, but would pose serious risk to life because of falling hazards. San Francisco State University rates among the worst. It suffered major damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that ultimately resulted in the demolition of student housing.

"Our first priority is the life safety of all the occupants of those buildings, and I can assure you that everyone, whether it be faculty, staff, students and visitors, can evacuate safely in the event of an earthquake," says Marilyn Lanier at SFSU.

San Francisco State is currently in the process of renovating and upgrading its campus library to make it safer. It will be completed next fall at a cost of nearly $117 million. However, the university still has students in buildings and parking lots that need to be upgraded, including housing that was acquired by the university in 2005.

"The CSU will devote money, will devote capital funding for those buildings when the funding is available. That will be their first priority," Lanier says.

The CSU system expects to fund 15 retrofit projects in the next five years at a cost of more than $500 million.

Engineer Daniel Shapiro says, "It's not cheap generally."

Shapiro has made a career of designing seismically-sound public buildings. He has served on the state's seismic safety commission and says one reason things have gotten so bad is because of a lack of oversight. It is an issue that has come before the commission.

"They had no overall permitting system for their buildings, so that their plan check was basically on their own and could vary quite widely as to how it was enforced," he says.

Seismologist Lucy Jones says, "We know that building codes really make a difference."

Jones is with the USGS in Pasadena. She is also a former member of the state seismic commission. She says that if California universities were held to the same standard as other public schools, people would not be hearing about how bad these buildings have become.

"The Field Act" was passed after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. That was when a 6.4 temblor destroyed 700 schools. No children were killed because it happened in the early evening, but the images were dramatic. The state passed a rigid inspection process requiring public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as community colleges, be built to the highest standards and constantly inspected.

Public universities were not included in that legislation. Jones says the 1994 Northridge quake provided an unfortunate example of how well the Field Act works.

"Pierce College was built in the 40s had $5 million of damage. Mission College built in the 80s had no structural damage whatsoever. Cal State Northridge built over a range of time had $405 million worth of damage, and that's the difference that the Field Act make," she says.

Jones says that if the universities were subject to the same standards, they would have spent more during construction and ultimately saved millions after the quake.

"It cost more money. It takes more time and we have never lost a child in an earthquake in California. Most people think It's one of the most effective things we've ever done," she says.

Check out the full California Watch report in Sunday's Chronicle.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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