How Safe Are Seattle Schools?

A headline from the Huffington Post - Oklahoma Schools Lacked Consistent Tornado Shelter Rules.  

From the article (highlights mine):

The two elementary schools leveled by the deadly tornado that swept through the Oklahoma City area Monday lacked designated safe rooms designed to protect children and teachers, despite state warnings that the absence of such facilities imperils lives.

At least two other schools in Moore -- the epicenter of the disaster -- did have safe rooms. So far no fatalities have been tied to those schools, whose buildings were fortified after a devastating twister hit the area in 1999.

These disparities in structural standards speak to the seeming randomness of who lived and who died in a natural disaster now blamed for taking the lives of at least 24 people, including nine children. Requirements for safe rooms in public schools vary from community to community across the swath of Midwestern and Southern states so accustomed to lethal twisters that it is known as Tornado Alley.

In Oklahoma and in bordering states, land-use regulations are often derided as unnecessary government intrusions. State building codes do not require that schools provide safe rooms, leaving the decision to individual school districts.

State emergency managers in Oklahoma do not track which schools maintain adequate storm shelters -- a fact state authorities highlighted as a worrisome deficiency in their most recent disaster plan submitted to the federal government.

Okay, so in an area of the country that every - single - year experiences tornadoes, they don't track what schools have storm shelters (which might be useful for ALL residents if a tornado came on a weekend).  I know the tornadoes vary in strength and size and where they hit but they will come somewhere.

A question from one of our blog readers:

The devastation in Oklahoma is terrible. One thing that really hit home for me is the number of schoolchildren who perished when those schools were destroyed.

It got me thinking (and worrying) about potential disasters closer to home. Fortunately we are not prone to tornadoes in the NW but we are prone to earthquakes, and experts say it is just a matter of time before the next really big one hits. So I'm wondering a little about emergency preparedness in our schools and also about the structural safety of them. In particular, the really old ones - Lincoln for instance is around 100 years old. I think there are some other pretty old/run down ones too. A lot of Seattle's old buildings are unreinforced masonry structures that do really poorly in event of quakes. Does anyone know, or is anyone able to point me toward who is in a position to answer questions about what, if any, seismic upgrades have been undertaken, and what sort of codes buildings such as these are subject to? I was under the impression that at Lincoln some parts of building had been retrofitted or something, but not all - if so, how can we ensure only the 'safe' parts are used when they plan putting more kids/school communities in there. I would hate to think we could be putting kids in harms way by sending them to school in buildings that are potential deathtraps in the event of a quake. And from what I have seen of the workings of this district I have very little faith in them having done this sort of thing properly. Also do they have earthquake drills in our schools (I hear about fire and lockdown drills but kids have never mentioned earthquake drills).

Can anyone out there shed any light on seismic upgrades/safety etc or where I can get more info as far as checking what has been done, what codes apply (and compliance with any codes)? Is this something I should even be worried about or should i just trust that if they have it's a school it will be all ship-shape and safe?

So maybe this is a good time to ask some hard questions about what Seattle Public schools has in place, what procedures they follow and, especially for our area which is likely to have an earthquake disaster, what happens in the hours AFTER the quake?  


Anonymous said…
Earthquake drills? Yes. Schools often tag this on to the end of a fire drill. After returning to class, it is announced over the PA. Kids tuck under desks and tables, hang on to a table leg and cover their head/neck with their other arm. They stay put until the All Clear is announced.

Be Prepared!
Does every school do an earthquake drill at the end of every fire drill?

Another good question.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Reposting Anonymous,

Many Seattle schools are in need of seismic upgrades. See how your child's school fares:
Eric M said…
Seattle schools are pretty much completely unprepared for a major earthquake. They will maybe get kids out, unless any emergency equipment is required. Then, no. Especially no from multistory buildings. The real question is what happens AFTER the initial quake is over. Dazed adults and kids walk around on a field in shock, probably underdressed for the weather, with no, or almost no food or water or shelter or sanitation or medical supplies. Some kids leave to go into neighborhoods, where natural gas is leaking in hundreds of places, houses are off foundations and extremely unsafe, and powerlines are sparking on the ground. Meanwhile, aftershocks continue, and people actually come to the school fields because they're large open areas, and they're scared to be in buildings. None of this is an exaggeration, I lived through it in 1989 in California. Bad juju.A blue tarp will be worth a lot in this situation.
Anonymous said…
Schools typically have a Safety Committee. Some are likely more prepared for emergencies than others. If parents are concerned, they should check with their school and perhaps, join the committee. Our school IS prepared for the aftermath. We have teams assigned to perform various duties, equipment stored on site (in a POD outside), etc. when the quake comes, I hope I'm at work. That's how prepared we are.

Be Prepared!
Anonymous said…
This was posted on the APP blog by CCA

Lincoln is a historical landmark, therefore any upgrades will be expensive and takes longer. Also, the next earthquake is expected to be from the Seattle Fault which is several decades overdue for one, which means that it would be >10 in magnitude, may be even >11. The last earthquake we had was only around 7+ and that was the San Andreas Fault which is further out along the continental shelf. The Seattle Fault runs right under Seattle, an earthquake there is going to level everything, no upgrade will be enough to keep any building from falling down. Just pray that the kids are outside when it
happens. There are things we can mitigate and there are things we can't, no matter how much money we throw at it. Lincoln will get upgraded so it meets the new codes put in after the last earthquake, which will help for earthquakes 8 or maybe 9 in magnitude, but not for a 10 or 11 earthquake.

Anonymous said…
Insomniac (speaking as someone who has read a lot about earthquake risk in Seattle), the post to the APP blog is not entirely accurate.

It is true that a rupture of the Seattle fault would be devastating to Seattle - and that is the scenario that was modeled in the WSDOT simulation video a few years back, and which underpins Seattle's earthquake preparedness training and scenarios. It would, however, be likely to top out at a 7.5. However, because it is a shallow crustal fault the devastation would be more significant than, for example, a fault like the Nisqually (centered further away, around 6.5, but also, significantly, emanating from 30+ feet under). The Seattle fault basically goes through the Seattle arenas in an east / west direction. It last ruptured over 1,000 years ago, and it is not understood when we might expect it to rupture again.

Our other great risk is the "megathrust" earthquake, in which the Juan de Fuca plate and Pacific plate - which are slipping past one another - suddenly experience a major thrust (with water displacement which can lead to a tsunami). Recent work on dating these events shows that they seem to average a window of around 300-500 years, and we are now inside that window (it's a lot more complex than that, of course!). With this kind of earthquake the ground will likely shake for 4-5 minutes, compared with the typical 30 seconds or so - making certain structures more vulnerable to failure. This would be a magnitude 9 or over (similar to Chile), but would be deeper and further away from Seattle - still devastating, and with regional devastation possible from Vancouver down to northern California.

Anyway, bottom line - our schools NEED to be prepared, and WE need to be prepared - whether it happens tomorrow or in 200 years (I recently read that there is an 87.5% likelihood of an earthquake over magnitude 5 hitting Seattle in the next 50 years - but I imagine that probability is significantly heightened because it includes the Benioff zone earthquakes - such as the Nisqually - that happen every 30-50 years). Check out the resources available through Seattle's Office of Emergency Management (including classes!), or a website like for preparedness help. And here's hoping we're prepared for nothing!!

Earthquake Obsessive
Anonymous said…
I would be happy to know Lincoln would be getting "upgraded so it meets the new codes put in after the last earthquake" even if all of that still won't make it safe in the event of a super-big quake as 'CCA' points out. We should do the best we can to make things safe even if it won't always be enough.
What concerns me is that there does not actually appear to be anything in the works as far as seismic upgrades at Lincoln and it needs a lot (the 2009 report has 4 pages of deficiencies that need correcting). Lincoln is not mentioned in the latest round of BEX funding as far as seismic upgrades yet it will be a full house (600ish APP plus another yet to be announced school community ) for the next 4-5 years until it is rebuilt as a high school. Sounds like we are supposed to just cross our fingers and hope a big one doesn't hit during school hours over this time! Why are no seismic updates planned - is it because of the planned remodel/rebuilt for 2019? Can nothing be done in the meantime to make it safer for the kids and staff in this building. I mean this is a seriously old, 4 story unreinforced masonry building - the worst place to be in a quake.

Disaster Aware
Eric B said…
Wow, there are a lot of folks with some amazing mis-perceptions about quakes in the area. Insomniac has it REALLY wrong, but even EQ obsessive has some interesting errors (for instance the M6.8 Nisqually earthquake was 30 MILES below the surface, not 30 feet.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources just put up a website that lists the probability of individual schools having no, minor and severe damage in a variety of scenario quakes. Go to and pick your scenario, check the school damage box and then zoom in on the school of your choice. I do not know how accurate the information is at the individual school level.

State law (
RCW 28A.320.125) requires that every school have an emergency drill for each month they are in session (typically 9-10). However they must have one lock down, onse shelter in place, and six fire drills, leaving only one or perhaps 2 for other types of emergencies such as earthquakes (which are optional). This is really unfortunate as the chance of a school experiencing an earthquake is much greater than a major structural fire and earthquake drills are far less disruptive. Of course some schools do exceed the minimum.
We need a strong political movement such as was done in Oregon by OPQRS ( to let it be known that it is not OK to have unsafe schools in an area of high seismic hazard.
In British Columbia, they have figured this out and have spent approx. 2.8 billion dollars to make their ~600 schools in high seismic hazard zones safe (about 300 needed work). Apparently BC cares about their children... Wouldn't it be wonderful to see the next BEX levy be about making schools seismically safe? I can't imagine Seattle voters saying no to that.
Anonymous said…
The San Andreas?Looks like we need Earthquake 101. The giant quake will be the off-shore like the one Japan had 2 years ago.lesson learned, they have stringent codes and damage from the quake was minimal, it was the tsunami. The seattle fault is very dangerous as well but unlikely to give huge magnitude 8 or more quakes. the problem is the old buildings and the poor soils. look at New Zealand and their problems, they built on fill(read SODO) the had old masonry structures and they did not want to tear anything down and rebuild based on probabilities. We should be razing these old deathtraps like Salmon bay, lincoln, Pioneer Square. Look also at Santa Cruz, CA. Beautiful late 19th and early 20th century brick and stone buildings - all destroyed after a moderately large quake in 1989. Loss of life minimal, but we are in a far worse boat here. I say knock em down and keep our kids safe.

Wanda said…
Eric M. raises a good point about aftermath. At our daughter's middle school a couple years ago (when they made the switch to 'airline food' from downtown), the kitchen stockrooms were cleaned out so there is virtually NOTHING to eat on hand.

I'm thinking of the factory girl who rrecently survived 16 days buried in rubble but survived.

Here, the only place in the district that would take place is (wait for it) DOWNTOWN at the headquarters building where "the bubble" they exist in always have provisions for contingencies. LITERALLY of course!
Anonymous said…
Oops, Eric B, I hope you realize the feet/miles was a typo!

Earthquake Obsessive
Check out the resources available through Seattle's Office of Emergency Management (including classes!), or a website like for preparedness help.

Yes, as individual families, you should have a plan. It could make all the difference for how you get through the next earthquake.

But the issue of this thread is school safety. I think I might have to investigate this thoroughly.

I was flummoxed to hear the Governor of Oklahoma, when asked about requirements for "safe rooms" in schools, say the following:
- districts and their taxpayers decide because most school construction is paid for by bonds
- all schools do have to have a safety/disaster plan and they have drills
- and all those teachers who led their students to safety and/or protected them with their own bodies, aren't they heroes?

To which I say:
- safety SHOULD be the concern of the state if districts can't afford it. A pot of money to fund a safe room at every school doesn't seem like a lot to ask for a state with tornadoes...every single year.

- great that they have plans and drills

- teachers saving lives? every single day in more ways than one. How many times this year have we seen teachers literally lay their life on the line for students? I'd be willing to bet that if I looked up what else this Governor has said about teachers, it would be as pretty.
word said…
Eric B -
Thanks for that website link - it is awesome.

I was in SF in the middle of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. There were so many obvious lessons from that quake:
-Buildings built to seismic standards actually work!
-Delaying freeway reconstruction will cost lives (the Alaskan Way viaduct looks identical to the Cypress structure in Oakland). Seattle really needs to take note of this. Don't get caught on it in a trembler.

Also, for parents who think about reaching their kids after the fact note that buses and cell phone contact, and other phone services were completely gone (overloaded) 5 min. after that quake. Traffic was a mess. You will probably be on foot trying to reach your school. Just something to consider.

-Been there, hope not to repeat it
One thing to try with cell phones is to call OUTSIDE the state to a friend or relative and tell them you are safe and where you are. Then, when your other family members call that same friend, the message can be relayed.

Sometimes it is easier to call out-of-state than in-state during a disaster. That said, if all hell is breaking loose, you may not be able to call at all.
word said…
Melissa is right - later that evening after the quake one of my friends was able to get through to my parents in another part of the state to say I was all right. The phone lines kind of go up and down based on their load. Once you've notified your loved ones best to get off the line. While my friends notified my family, I was creeping along the freeway trying to find a safe bridge to cross to get to the East Bay. Not fun!

Note also however, people really come together to help. People were out directing traffic with flashlights. And you can be sure the heroic SPS teachers will take care of your kids 'till you can get to them.
Po3 said…
Years ago we had to send earthquake care packages to school at the beginning of the year that had food and water, I don't recall having to do this in several years.

Probably a good time to revisit earthquake prepardness, especially if you have student who in a school that is not walking distance from your home or work!
Anonymous said…
Confused--my kid goes to Queen Anne Elementary. It's not listed on the site. There are no Q schools listed at all, and it's not listed under its old name (Hay, Old Hay) or under it's old old name (John Hay--since, there is a new building named John Hay).

Incoming Parent
Anonymous said…
I understand the financial constraints that this district operate under but I firmly believe that the district needs to ensure basic modern building safety standards are met in all our schools -eg, sprinklers (apparently not all schools have them) and seismic upgrades, before they budget for the multi-million dollar lunchroom renovations, fancy auditoriums, play fields, 'green buildings' etc. Those are luxuries - school buildings that safe according to basic modern standards should be the fundamental priority and THE most important area to which the building budget is allocated. Seems like the major issues in some of these schools are passed over again and again in favor of 'showcase' items'.
The Seattle Times has a front page story about the schools in Oklahoma lack of tornado shelter - the one that was most damaged and had fatalities was an older building that had not had tornado upgrades after the 1999 one. Imagine the handwringing here if a big quake destroyed Lincoln for example -people would be asking why didn't the district take those basic measures outlined in the seismic reports to make the school safer. Why are we not making them accountable to do so now, before a tragedy occurs?
I am not a very public/politically savvy person but I really want to bring attention to this - now, not in the aftermath of some event (as is happening in Oklahoma). So, does that mean I need to start writing to the board, Seattle Times or what?

Disaster Aware
Eric B said…
I believe that seismic work is included in any major renovation by SPS policy if not by Seattle code. The Lincoln seismic work would be done with the major renovation that re-opens it as a high school.

One of the frustrating things about seismic upgrades is that the rules are always changing. Just like in medicine, engineers learn something new with every quake, and the codes change. Sometimes that means going back from things that we thought were good ideas in the past. It's also a problem with no top end--you can always imagine a bigger quake.

@word, the viaduct looks a lot like the Oakland freeway, but it doesn't share the same design flaws that made the Oakland one pancake. The viaduct does have its own set of design flaws, and it wouldn't be my favorite place to be in an earthquake. However, one of my civil engineering profs in college said that he hoped he wouldn't be under the Convention Center on I-5 when the big one came; he'd rather be on the viaduct!

(I usually post here as Eric B, but I'm not the same one as above unless I've been sleep-posting)
Anonymous said…
If you want a scandal in the making (or at least I think it is scandalous), check out which schools have disaster preparedness kits and supplies.

I'm sure you will all find this surprising: schools with well-funded PTAs are far more likely to have such supplies (paid for by the PTA, of course). Schools without well-funded PTAs are virtually guaranteed to have...nothing.

- Schocked...not.
Disaster Aware, I agree about overbuilding for some remodels. I absolutely think we need to work to have safe schools before beautiful schools (age before beauty).

I'll write another thread about what we can do, as both parents and taxpayers, but for one, we need to ask School Board candidates what they understand about school safety and facilities.

Word, thanks for that input on your experience. When I lived in California, I went through many small earthquakes (and oddly, one in Belgium and one in Italy - they seem to follow me) but no real disasters.

But I was in NYC for the last blackout and learned some lessons from that as well.
Anonymous said…
hamilton is not listed either...anybody know anything about that?

Anonymous said…
Hamilton is on there. And QAE appears to be under the old name SBOC (secondary bilingual orientation center)

I didn't see Lincoln - I think it's under the old name Hazel Wolf HS (didn't even know that was the old name)

-sps mom
mirmac1 said…
I found it odd to know that the PTSA was expected to replenish the container out back, replacing expired MREs and water containers... I even called Bob Westgard to verify and asked how PTSA's can benefit from district purchase agreements. Of course we can't.

And, yes, it is &*%$#*@! that students without well-funded PTSAs are literally out in the cold!
Anonymous said…
I don't remember Hazel Wolf ever being at Lincoln. They were down 45th where I think the Boys and Girls Club is now (45th and Stone). Hazel Wolf is now Seattle Waldorf High School and located in the Catholic Church Education Building across from Seattle Children's Theater.

Anonymous said…
Actually, sps mom, the SBOC listing links to a report for Meany.

Incoming Parent
Anonymous said…
weird. I don't see the report linked to sboc at meany (or any report ???). if I hover on the area where QAE is on the map a pop up comes up that says SBOC (prob of no damage: .43; Prob of slight damage:.50; Prob of moderate damage: .07; prob of extensive damage: 0; prob of complete damage: 0 ) The scenario reports just come up as generic Seattle damage reports.

i must be doing it wrong.
-sps mom
Anonymous said…
Ok, I must be looking at a different website, because it's a list of schools, not a map! I was looking at the page Melissa posted near the top of the thread. Where is this web page with the map, can you share a link? Thank you!

Incoming Parent
Anonymous said…
Thanks Eric B for the link to the Oregon parents for quake safe schools website blog (

There were some useful links about earthquake risk and what other Oregon and other states are doing. Obviously the costs of seismic mitigation exceed what we can expect our school district to accomplish with the limited funds they have (though I believe they should prioritize the use of their funds to place safety first).
In Oregon the state government has committed to fix vulnerable public schools - and the advocacy group has petitioned the "state government to accelerate and expand their commitment to fix the more than 1,000 public school buildings that are considered to be at high risk of collapse in a major Cascadia earthquake."
Other things the Oregon parent advocates have been doing include:

"At annual meeting of Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Seattle, OPQRS participated in a panel on school earthquake safety advocacy for several hundred engineers and other seismic specialists." (Were any Seattle school representatives involved?)

"Working with local school district, Portland Public Schools, and helped to pass a successful school bond that will bring seismic safety repairs to more than three dozen Portland schools and fully rebuild three unreinforced masonry (URM) high schools." (We need this in Seattle, should be the focus of BEX!)

"Working with Oregon Emergency Management to instigate a school-based event to celebrate the achievements of the state’s Seismic Rehabilitation Grants Program, and to engage the governor and the state’s education leaders." (is there any thing like the seismic rehabilitation grant program in Washington?)

Eric B also mentions that in British Columbia, they spent approx. 2.8 billion dollars to make their ~600 schools in high seismic hazard zones safe (about 300 needed work).

Why does Washington state/Seattle seem to lack any impetus to do the same?
Are grants available for the district to apply to earthquake risk mitigation?
Do we need a petition to the state government to urge them to make Washington Schools Quake Resistant? The state mandates K-12 school attendance; so shouldn't the state have an obligation to ensure children are safe in their public schools?

It's not enough to have school disaster kits or earthquake drills. What is the point of practice earthquake drills in classrooms that will pancake the day an actual earthquake strikes along one of our dangerous faults.

Disaster Aware
Anonymous said…
My own personal nightmare for my high-school aged kid is if a significant event happens during lunchtime. Kids leave campus for lunch and the school has absolutely no idea who has gone off campus on any given day, and where they are. As a parent, I wouldn't know where to start looking, which is especially frightening if a kid is injured.

I guess I had better re-visit our family's earthquake meet up plan and figure something out.

Jamie said…
I work downtown and my kid's school is in Ballard. When I think about earthquakes I think about bridges. Be sure you have someone you know - a friend who works from home, a relative, etc whose home your kid could go to if you might not get back across the ship canal for a while.
Anonymous said…
It was from eric b's post above

The Washington Department of Natural Resources just put up a website that lists the probability of individual schools having no, minor and severe damage in a variety of scenario quakes. Go to and pick your scenario, check the school damage box and then zoom in on the school of your choice. I do not know how accurate the information is at the individual school level.

-sps mom
Moose, I asked, after the Cafe Racer shooting, what our high schoolers have been told if they are off campus and an event happens at school. There is no current system to text them and if they have any instructions on what to do, it is at the school level. Ask at your school what their policy is so your student knows.

Jamie, it's now Friday morning and your comment could not be anymore relevant.
Anonymous said…
There is a lot of erroneous and false information in these responses. Please do your own research. Facts and details matter here. And there is one perfectly reasonable and affordable way to protect yourself from a collapsing building at home, work or school:

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