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Are California schools seismically safe?

April 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
For more than 70 years, a law has been in place in California requiring schools to take measures during construction to be safer in the event of an earthquake.

But are they?

In 1933, a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Long Beach caused massive destruction. Seventy schools collapsed and 120 people died.

After that quake, a state law called the Field Act was passed requiring that all school construction projects be earthquake-resistant.

Yet parent and attorney Jeff Gananian found that structural work at Pescadero High School in the Bay Area may have been done without the state's approval.

"That's when the light bulb went on," Gananian said. "We began to realize that there are potentially thousands and thousands of other projects."

Gananian's now suing that school district.

But an investigation by California Watch found thousands of school construction projects, from dangerous lights to malfunctioning fire alarms, don't comply with the Field Act.

California's Division of State Architect, or DSA, is the agency in charge of enforcing the law. In many cases, they don't know if school officials have fixed these problems.

Five years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District finished Southeast Middle School in South Gate at a taxpayer cost of $52 million. The school sits on a liquefaction zone that could increase damage in an earthquake, according to a geological firm hired by the LAUSD.

State records indicate that huge window walls three stories high may not be properly anchored and could pose a risk to students in a quake. Officials with the district insist Southeast was constructed to Field Act standards and that critical phases of the design were approved by the DSA.

But an inspector who worked on the job says the district needs to tear open the wall to verify that proper fixes were made. However, that has yet to be done.

DSA officials admit that thousands of school projects lack state certification. Spokesman Eric Lamoureux claims most are simply missing paperwork.

"At this point, we don't believe that any of those projects pose a significant threat," Lamoureux said.

But some experts like earthquake engineer Peter Yanev aren't convinced.

"The system is not doing what it's supposed to do," Yanev said.

In a 2006 report, the DSA states that some school projects were being completed without adequate testing and inspection.

"What that tells me is we're building schools in California that are not properly designed and checked in the field to make sure they're properly built. That's a problem," Yanev said.

In 2002, the DSA prepared a list of schools the state itself determined may be potentially dangerous in an earthquake, more than 7,500 additional buildings statewide. Nine years later, California Watch found most sit unrepaired.

Former state architect David Thorman said many of those schools need to be looked at right away.

"The priority has to be answering the questions, in terms of are the schools truly safe," he said.

State Sen. Ellen Corbett chairs the Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery committee and wants to see the Field Act enforced.

"We definitely need to ask some very tough questions and find out where the problems are and do something about it," Corbett said.

To learn more about seismic dangers and earthquake zones that are near Southland schools, click here.

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