Seismic School Readiness… Not So Much

Chalk BoardIn the four months since The New Yorker ran “The Really Big One,” an article predicting an almost certain catastrophic earthquake striking a largely unprepared Pacific Northwest, reactions from media, government, and just about everyone else have ranged from surprise and terror to anger. “The fundamental issue is that most of the building stock in the Pacific Northwest was constructed prior to any knowledge of subduction zone earthquakes,” said Oregon State University’s Chris Goldfinger.

Goldfinger is director of the Active Tectonics and Seafloor Mapping Laboratory in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at the university. He is an oft-cited authority and was relied on heavily in The New Yorker article.

But, back to the building inventory that Goldfinger is referring to, our own Corvallis public schools are part of that stock, and district officials are not shy talking about it.

District School Buildings Are High Risk
In short, the table accompanying this story shows that the majority of Corvallis schools run a high risk of collapse in the event of the anticipated quake, likely to be 8.0 or greater.

The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) conducted rapid visual screenings (RVS) on various buildings in Oregon which included public places and emergency services like fire departments and schools. These reports are easily accessible online, and they reveal that many Corvallis 509j schools have a high collapse potential. Goldfinger said that although these reports are not structural analyses (they are only a quick look), “the problem is so well known that engineers really only need a brief look to assess the general scope of the problem for a particular structure.”

That said, according to the full report put out by DOGAMI in 2007, “More detailed structural investigation by qualified and experienced engineers is required to fully assess the seismic risks and rehabilitation issues of any one building. The age, structural types, and predominant physical irregularities of school buildings result in a relatively high proportion of schools with estimated Very High relative seismic risk.” It also points out that “this estimate is likely high, due to incomplete data as to which schools have already taken action to remedy the structural design flaws in their buildings. Many school districts have taken such action, and some of their work has been captured in this report and data set.”

The Corvallis School District, when asked if any of their structures have had any retrofitting done since the DOGAMI report, responded with a press release: “Reports did not include structural mitigation that had been completed by school districts. Prior to those reports and since that time, the district has maintained its commitment to the community to improve seismic safety as funding is available. In 2015, the State of Oregon increased funding for seismic grants and the first of two grant cycles opened October 1. The district is actively working with engineering consultants to move forward with grant applications that best serve the long term needs of the school district. In addition, the Corvallis School District will be reviewing our long range facilities plan. The process will include recommendations that support student education including seismic safety, security, technology and 21st-century learning options, and other program supports.”

The press release does assert some improvements were completed in 2008, including multiple seismic improvement projects throughout the district, structural remodeling at Crescent Valley High School, roofing diaphragm improvements at other schools, and installation of seismic gas valves at every school.

However, collapse potentials for the district’s elementary schools remain high, with Lincoln Elementary at the most risk. In hearing district personnel discuss the situation, there seems to be the sense that they know the problems and strongly desire to maximize the safety of  district facilities, but the funding has been slow.

It’s Not Just Corvallis
Of the schools surveyed in Oregon, 666 had a low probability of collapse, 501 were moderate, 745 were considered to have a high collapse potential, and 273 were considered to be very high. It is important to note that the scores of these buildings is related to a probability that the structures will collapse or sustain major damage, but it is all approximate.

Not Just a Schools Problem
The New Yorker piece anticipates that we should expect an earthquake somewhere between 8.0 and 9.2, which they predict will cause a tsunami and widespread destruction of the electrical grid and structures. In fact, according to the article, FEMA projects that nearly 13,000 people will die, 27,000 will be injured, and it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people and food and water for another two and a half million.


Some evacuation plans call for school facilities to be used, but most experts stipulate that they cannot know which of those structures will be habitable until after an event.


High Risk at Most Corvallis Schools

Adams Elementary 0.9 High

Cheldelin Middle School 0.7 High

Crescent Valley High School 0.9 High

Franklin School 0.5 High

Garfield Elementary School 0.5 High

Hoover  Elementary School 1.3 Moderate

Inavale School 0.9 High

Jefferson Elementary School 0.9 High

Lincoln Elementary School -0.3 Very High

Mt. View Elementary School 0.9 High

Wilson Elementary School 0.9 High


DOGAMI has refined the relative rank of the RVS scores into four categories: very high, high, moderate, and low collapse potential. FEMA recommends that all buildings with a score of 2.0 or less should be considered to have inadequate performance during the anticipated maximum seismic event. 

An RVS score of 2.0 implies there is a chance of 1 in 100 that the building will collapse. A score of 0.0 implies a chance of 1 in 1. Linus Pauling and Corvallis High School have been replaced with new buildings since the time of the DOGAMI report.

View the report at


 By Hannah Darling