On Shaky Ground

Lawmakers are readying the state Capitol for a massive earthquake. They haven't prepared Oregon schools.

Seven years ago, the state identified 275 public school buildings that, without safety upgrades, were sure to collapse when the next big earthquake shakes Oregon.  

The state Legislature set aside $30 million to help pay for renovations. But last year, Oregon's seismic safety commission issued a report showing the Legislature had only provided enough money to upgrade about 2 percent of those buildings. 

The report urged the state to prioritize upgrades to hospitals and schools.

Lawmakers haven't done that. But they did vote last July to fund the first phase of a seismic renovation for their own offices in the state Capitol.

The vote authorized $34.5 million—more than the cost of retrofitting 42 schoolhouses and essential buildings—to design a plan to protect the building in the event of a massive earthquake. It is the first step in what officials estimate will be a $252 million renovation.

As early as next year, lawmakers could move to temporary offices for three years while the building gets $138.4 million in earthquake protection and another $89 million in renovations.

"This building is at risk, and it's the hub of state government," says Sen. Peter Courtney (D-Salem), the Senate president. "If this capitol goes down, God forbid there are people inside it."

Not everyone is convinced this single project is the best use of scarce dollars for seismic safety. 

"I fundamentally disagree with the priority," says Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), who voted against the Capitol renovation project. "If the big one does happen and our Capitol is standing because we spent that money, how are we going to look into the faces of those parents?"

Gov. John Kitzhaber and Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland), the House speaker, both told WW through their press offices that they support the Capitol project but also want schools made safe. "It's important that the Capitol renovations fit within a broader conversation about seismic safety and preparedness," says Kitzhaber spokeswoman Melissa Navas.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland), who voted for it, says lawmakers shouldn't have to choose between themselves and schoolchildren. "I'm not trying to prioritize one person's life over another," she says. "But we have to think about a range of areas to protect."

In 2007, the state evaluated more than 2,000 school buildings. The study identified 275 virtually certain to collapse in a massive quake, and another 745 with a better than 10 percent chance of pancaking.

The Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission asked Kitzhaber in 2011 for $200 million to retrofit schools and emergency buildings. "As we sit here today," the commission chair wrote, "more than a quarter of a million Oregon school children are forced to attend classes in buildings that are at a 'high' or 'very high' risk of collapse in a major seismic event." The request was denied.

In February 2013, the Legislative Administrative Committee published its proposal for overhauling the Capitol.

The following July, lawmakers approved $34.5 million in bonds to undertake design and planning. At least $7 million of that will go to move lawmakers and staff out of their Capitol offices, even before the Legislature votes next year whether to fund the renovation.

The $252 million budget may include renovations to the first through fourth floors of the Senate and House wings, parts of which were renovated in 2007.

Legislative Administrator Kevin Hayden, who oversees the project, says those renovations will include upgrades to the emergency sprinkler system, disability access, ventilation and electrical service. 

"We have to make sure we're both preserving the Capitol and giving us a safe building for the 300-ish employees who work here," he said. "I'm willing to roll the dice on myself, but I'm not willing to roll the dice on the schoolkids we invite in every day."

The push to upgrade Oregon schools has no more ardent advocate than Courtney, now leading the charge to renovate the Capitol. "We've studied the thing," he says. "She's beautiful. And she's hurting."

Courtney said he'll ask the Legislature to beef up funding for schools and essential buildings from its current $30 million backing to $200 million. 

"I can't guarantee $200 million goes for the schools," he said, acknowledging that he'll have a hard time persuading lawmakers to spend more than $400 million on seismic upgrades in one legislative session. 

Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who also serves on the Legislative Administration Committee, says she hasn't received a full briefing on the project. 

"I have no idea what conversations have taken place," Johnson says. "I live on the coast, in tsunami zones. How do I explain to my constituents why it's more important to retrofit the Capitol than their schools?” 

WW news interns Samantha Matsumoto and Sami Edge contributed to this story. 

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