Jun 9, 2022 - Politics

School earthquake retrofits could cost $1 billion

Illustration of a hundred dollar bill with an earthquake crack down the middle.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Washington's legislature approved $100 million earlier this year to help upgrade schools to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.

Yes, but: That money is likely to pay for about one-tenth of the work that is needed, a key lawmaker recently told Axios.

Why it matters: Washington is due for a big earthquake, and many of the state's schools aren't prepared, putting tens of thousands of students at risk.

By the numbers: State Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) estimates about a $1 billion price tag to move all vulnerable Washington schools out of high-risk tsunami zones and retrofit schools that face the highest risk from earthquakes.

  • About 70% of the state's 4,400 schools are located in high-risk earthquake zones, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
  • Roughly 700 schools were built before 1960, and it's unclear how much they've been updated, if at all.

What they're saying: A retrofit can range from $500,000 to several million dollars depending on a building's construction, age, and other factors, said Tyler Muench, a policy and outreach coordinator with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

  • "Based on these factors it is very difficult to predict how far the funding will go," Muench wrote in an email to Axios.

Zoom out: Oregon and British Columbia have in recent years put substantially more money toward preparing their schools for natural disasters, Frockt said.

  • "I think it’s pretty clear we are behind the curve," said Frockt, who worked to secure the $100 million in this year's capital construction budget.
  • Frockt originally hoped to spend $400 million or $500 million.
  • While the $100 million was a compromise, it's still more than the state has ever spent on school earthquake retrofits in a single budget cycle.

What's next: A new state law, Senate Bill 5933, directs an expert panel to help make a list of which schools should see upgrades first.

  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction must submit that list to the governor by Sept. 1, a process that will repeat each year with the remaining schools.
  • Frockt, who's retiring at the end of the year, said he hopes legislators continue to put more money toward earthquake-proofing schools.
  • That's a goal that the Senate's lead budget writer, Sen. Christine Rolfes, said she shares.

What we're watching: There's no guarantee that the legislature will continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars on retrofitting schools, making it uncertain whether all schools will get the funding they need down the line.


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