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by Liz Dwyer
When it comes to earthquakes in California, the question is not if but when the state will be hit by another big one. But just how prepared the state's schools? I wondered that after last month's 9.0 temblor in Japan, and wrote about statewide efforts through The Great California ShakeOut to teach kids what to do during a quake. I even wrote that California's schools are generally structurally sound thanks to "the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, which resulted in the Field Act being passed, requiring 'schools to be built to higher inspection standards and construction standards.'"
Except, thanks to a major series launched this morning by California Watch, we now know that's not true. Officials in the Division of the State Architect, the chief regulator of construction standards for public schools actually haven't enforced the Field Act. Thousands of schools across the state have serious seismic issues—structural flaws and safety hazards that were reported during construction—and they could put student's lives in danger during a quake.
The groundbreaking series, which took 19 months of investigation to complete, found that a staggering 60 percent of public schools in the state have "at least one uncertified building project." More than 7,500 older school buildings are known to be seriously dangerous. The State has allowed "building inspectors hired by school districts to work on complex and expensive jobs despite complaints of incompetence," and inspectors may have filed false reports and pushed through certifications just to reduce case loads.
That's bad enough, but the corruption gets worse.
As the state architect’s office relaxed its oversight, the office became closely aligned with the industry it regulates. Government officials became members of a lobbying group for school construction firms; mingled at conferences, golf tournaments and dinners; and briefed the lobbying group’s clients at monthly meetings. The state even told its employees that taxpayers would foot the bill for their membership dues.
The California Geological Survey even caved to "pressure from property owners, real estate agents and local government officials" and redrew seismic hazard zone maps, leading to schools being falsely identified as being outside a danger zone.
Essentially, the State of California and school officials encourages kids to drop, cover and hold if an earthquake strikes, all while cutting corners, pushing school construction projects forward that should be shut down, and turning a blind eye to existing structural damage at schools.
California Watch's series has a helpful searchable database that lets you enter your county and city and then search for a specific school to see what its seismic safety status is. I searched for information on the school my two sons attend. The building my kids sit in every day is "potentially hazardous in an earthquake and in need of a detailed structural evaluation." According to state records, there's been "no seismic review or retrofit." And, at a time when California's budget woes keep growing and billions are being slashed from schools, a 2007 estimated cost to fix just this one school is $1,535,850.72.
One thing Californians should consider is that the costs to fix schools upfront are cheaper than both the cleanup costs after a quake hits and the legal expenses. Yes, legal expenses. According to the report,
School board members, builders, architects and inspectors can be charged with a felony for failing to follow the act’s provisions. School board members could face additional criminal charges if a student or staff member dies or is injured by earthquake damage at a school without Field Act certification.
Now that this information is out there, what can we do? Put pressure on California Governor Jerry Brown to pink slip the top management within the Division of the State Architect. They haven't done their job—and their corruption could kill.
photo via Facts and Details
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