Flawed Report Lists Schools at Risk in Quakes

When Terra Firma Isn't
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Six years ago, California lawmakers set out to answer a simple question: Which school buildings are vulnerable to earthquakes?

They still don't know.

State officials responsible for school safety went over the building plans for thousands of school buildings in earthquake-prone regions of California and found as many as 7,500 older structures whose construction styles put them at risk of collapse in a big temblor. Of those, 263 potentially vulnerable buildings are owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District, on 127 campuses.

The study, authorized by the Legislature in 1999 and completed in 2002, was initially kept from parents and released only to school districts that requested it.

After it was made available to the public several weeks ago, The Times reviewed the list and found that far from being a useful resource for parents and school districts, the database was a jumble with at least 2,000 errors, with schools listed as vulnerable that already have been fixed and others assigned to the wrong districts or even to nonexistent ones.

State officials acknowledged last week that the database was flawed. Matt Bender, spokesman for the office of state architect, which conducted the survey, urged parents and teachers concerned about a particular school to check with their local districts.

But officials at some local districts, including Los Angeles Unified, said they don't know which buildings -- or how many -- might be at higher risk and said they expected the state's database to provide that information.

If an accurate list existed, parents, teachers or school administrators could press to have older, less-safe buildings retrofitted. Funds for upgrades could come from the billions of dollars in statewide and local school bond measures that have been approved in recent years. So far, the vast majority of that money has been allocated to the construction of new schools, rather than to retrofitting old ones.

The problems distress seismic safety advocates and school administrators, who say thousands of older school buildings are at risk of failure during a major quake.

"It's very disappointing," said State Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), coauthor of the law that required the state to create the database. "We expect that when we send our children and grandchildren to school that they're going to be in a safe environment, and that's not true today."

California's Field Act, enacted in the 1930s and updated frequently, imposes earthquake safety standards on school buildings. But building standards have changed, and many schools built years ago are less safe than newer ones.

The study looked at school buildings constructed before 1978, when the Field Act was updated in the wake of the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. The researchers found that about a fifth of school buildings in California would be vulnerable in a major earthquake.

The problems with the database underscore broader flaws in the state's earthquake safety network, which is highly decentralized and does not track or vet retrofitting efforts for most types of buildings, including schools.

There is no state clearinghouse with records of seismic work by local school districts and no regulator whose job it is to see whether the schools have been upgraded or inspected.

Some school districts, particularly smaller ones, have made significant progress. Karen Christiansen, facilities chief for the Beverly Hills Unified School District, said her district already has repaired all but one of its quake-vulnerable buildings and is tearing down that one.

Other school districts, particularly the larger ones, are still assessing how many buildings are at risk.

LAUSD administrators say they have spent nearly $120 million repairing and retrofitting about 100 campuses since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, plus millions more upgrading portable buildings and shoring up nonstructural hazards, including windows and fans.

Richard Luke, who is in charge of design standards for the district, said he has had the state's list of potentially vulnerable LAUSD buildings for 18 months but has not been able to spare personnel to go through and compare it with a list of schools the district has repaired.

Bruce Kendall, LAUSD's deputy chief executive for existing facilities, said the district planned to examine the two lists over the next couple of months. By early next year, district officials plan to present Supt. Roy Romer with a report on which schools are vulnerable, he said.

Many of the schools in the state's database were built with concrete frames that are not flexible enough to withstand the back-and-forth movement of a strong temblor, said Fred Turner, structural engineer for the California Seismic Safety Commission. Others were built with flexible walls attached to stiff roofs and beams, which means that in a major quake, the walls would vibrate at a different rate from other parts of the building and could become detached from the roof or floor.

After the 1989 Loma Prieta quake raised concerns about safety in schools and other buildings, advocates began pushing the Legislature to examine the structural soundness of educational facilities. But such efforts are controversial, and it took nearly 10 years to win support for a basic accounting of quake-vulnerable structures.

The Legislature and then-Gov. Gray Davis approved a bill calling for the study after its authors agreed that the information -- by law -- would be withheld from parents and made available only to school districts that specifically requested it.

At the time, Bender said, opponents were concerned that parents would panic and yank children out of class if they saw their neighborhood schools on the list. School districts were also concerned about liability issues, he and others said. The Schwarzenegger administration released the list to the public in October at the request of parents' groups as well as media organizations.

Individual districts have been slow to request the information. As of this summer, 5% of districts in the state had asked for information.

"Many of the districts have not asked for this information; they've chosen to remain ignorant," said Daniel Shapiro, a structural engineer who serves on the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Shapiro said he and other advocates hoped that parents would demand better information on their children's schools.

"One of the things we're working on right now is finding a way to interest parent groups and others to pressure their district administrators to look into this information," Shapiro said. "Once they know this information, they're pretty much obligated to do something."

After learning of the flaws in the current database, Alquist said last week that she planned to introduce another bill to require the state to develop a current accounting of vulnerable school buildings that would be accurate and available to parents in a user-friendly form.