Senate President Peter Courtney: Schools not safe for quakes

[Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney]

SALEM — A report released today by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries provides further evidence that Oregon must move forward to retrofit school buildings and emergency services facilities so that they will not crumble in a major seismic event, Senate President Peter Courtney said Monday.

“The Geologic Hazards, Earthquake and Landslide Hazard Maps, and Future Damage Estimates for Six Counties in the Mid/Southern Willamette Valley” report indicates that an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale in Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon Coast would result in $12 billion in property damage and nearly 1,000 deaths in the region, which includes Yamhill, Marion, Polk, Benton, Linn, and Lane Counties.

“If a magnitude 9 earthquake off the Oregon Coast would kill 1,000 people in this section of the valley, imagine the loss of life that would be experienced in coastal communities and the Portland metro area,” said Courtney, D-Salem/Gervais/Woodburn. “We cannot wait any longer to begin the seismic retrofitting of our schools and emergency services facilities that voters approved nearly six years ago.”

In November 2002, Oregon voters approved the issuance of bonds to fund more than $1 billion worth of improvements for Oregon schools, as well as hospital emergency rooms, police stations and fire houses. The economic downturn experienced by the state in 2003 understandably slowed progress, but no bonds have yet been sold and the process meant to allot bond funds to school districts to pay for the seismic upgrading is still not in place, Courtney said.

“When the magnitude 8 quake hit China in May, we saw the devastating loss of life that can occur when school buildings collapse on classes full of children,” Courtney said. “In recent years, earthquakes have led to deadly school collapses in Italy, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey. We cannot allow Oregon to be added to that list.”

A study completed by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in 2007 shows that more than 1,100 school buildings in Oregon are at high or very high risk of collapsing in an earthquake. Another 500 buildings face a moderate risk.

“A major earthquake during the school day would be devastating beyond description,” Courtney said.

The Senate President said progress toward implementing the granting process has been made in recent weeks with the hiring of a grant administrator by Oregon Emergency Management.

“We cannot, however, allow the momentum we have gained since the China quake to be lost. Hopefully, this report will keep the tragic human cost of a major earthquake event first and foremost on our minds. We must move forward to make our schools safer and ensure that our first responders will have facilities they need to perform their duties when we need them most,” Courtney said.

The full report can be found at

  • Steve Plunk

    Fear mongers. Let’s spend more money because of a practically nonexistent risk of earthquake.

    How many kids have been killed at school from earthquakes in the history of the United States? My research has found none. How many kids have been killed in school bus accidents? Hundreds. Are we going to get rid of the schools buses? No.

    The real risks are ignored in favor of the more newsworthy risk. Courtney is working for more construction spending by using kids. He should be ashamed but it’s more likely he is just ignorant. It is absolutely foolish to throw in countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Pakistan. These countries do not have the construction standards we have or even the same quality of building materials. We have no mud brick schools for gosh sakes.

    The geologists are learning from the climatologists. Preach doom and gloom and get more funding for research. If you are wrong there are no consequences for your soothsaying shortcomings. It’s shameful and destroys the reputation of legitimate scientists.

    Has Oregon ever has a school collapse from an earthquake? No. When was the last big earthquake? About a hundred years ago. Do we have them often? No. What are the odds kids would be in school even if there was an earthquake? Less than 25%. The risk is just too small for our limited resources. Courtney is just playing politics with our kids.

  • Crawdude

    OMG! an earthquake! Hey, what about a meteor slamming into the coast? or I know a spaceship with Q38 space modulator (it makes an earth shattering, KA-BOOM) attacking the coast.

    We should prepare for all eventualities! no matter how silly , unprecedented or unlikely!

    • Marvin

      That’s an Illudium Q38 explosive space modulator, earthling.

  • eagle eye

    I wish I could discount the earthquake risk like some of the posters. I know I can’t get earthquake insurance on my house.

    • dean

      Steve…subduction zone earthquakes off the Oregon and Washington coasts are a documented fact. The stresses build up over long time periods, and release every 3-500 years. Geologists and archeologists (uncovering buried village sites) have documented this beyond any reasonable doubt. The last known quake of this type happened 350 or so years ago. Many of our school buildings were built well before the risk of this type of quake was known. We are due for one of these quakes within 50 years or so. To not act on what we know would amount to criminal negligence.

      • Steve Plunk

        Dean, I’ve done my research on this topic and the risk is overblown. Risk maps, USGS maps, and research papers talk of earthquake risk but when you get down to the details you find higher risk with low magnitudes and very low risk of high magnitudes. The largest components of what risk there is is limited to tsunami zones and landslides. Most schools are not in these zones.

        The reason we see these reports is provide cover for more spending on construction and more spending for research. The real risks to school kids are elsewhere. Again, look at the data regarding earthquake injuries and deaths versus school bus injuries and deaths. It’s not even close. The difference is what gets the money flowing to campaign contributors and the public sector.

        I will state one more time that it is my belief these scientists are in a no lose situation when making these dire predictions. If the earthquakes never come they will have no consequences for their poor predictions yet get the benefits of more research dollars. It fouls science.

        To call this criminal negligence is hysterical. Not funny, hysterical. Liberals like to call any government inaction criminal if it does not meet their demands. Public debate in this manner is counter-productive. Serious people understand limited resources means prioritizing and making rational, logical decisions based upon facts and real risk analysis. In this case Courtney has no basis for such fear mongering.

        • eagle eye

          When I bought my house, it wasn’t even known that Oregon periodically has huge earthquakes. Great, stop doing earthquake science, the greedy scientists are a bunch of liars. Tell that to the insurance companies that won’t insure us for earthquakes. We just need to bury our heads in the sand.

        • dean

          Steve…I’ve also researched it, though maybe not to the extent you have. Comparison with school bus deaths is not helpful because we have not experienced a subduction zone quake since 1700. One big quake could change those numbers overnight, as just happened in China.

          I’m not sure what you mean by “higher risk with low magnitudes…” Do you mean higher risk of occurance or higher risk of widespread damage?

          I don’t know Courtney’s motivtions. But it seems to me that any upgrades to school buildings would have to account for their relative risk. Some were built on riskier soils, or in riskier locations than others. Some are wood frame and relatively safe. Others are masonary and less so. If I were looking for capital funds for schools I would look for a more universal problem to solve.

          It is akin to criminal negligence to know of a risk, choose to ignore it, and then have to answer to the parents of hundreds to thousands of dead kids. It could be characterized as “hysterical’ (the not funny kind) if it is more driven by emotion than by risk management. I agree we can’t make everywhere perfectly safe and have to make choices with limited resources. I don’t know the extent to which this particular risk is greater than others, but I would not blow it off. Allocating some funds to address the highest risk schools seems prudent.

  • Jerry

    The school buildings are empty for over half the calendar year! So the chances of any trouble from an earthquaked are this reduced 50%. If they would shorten the school year, as I have earlier proposed, the chances of trouble would be further reduced.

    I wonder if this Courtney guy has an earthquake proof house??

    • dean

      Jerry…most homes are wood frame, and thus are fairly earthquake resistant because the bend rather than break. Most school buildings are likely concrete bearing walls, and if they were built with inadequate steel reinforcing on silty soils they are more prone to break and collapse rather than bend.

      But sure…odds are probably 2 to 1 that a magnitude 8 or 9 subduction zone quake would occur when the buildings are not full of innocent, adult trusting kids and socialist, unionist teachers. I think most Oregon parents would accept those odds rather than ponying up money for reinforcing school buildings. So let’s check this one off the to do list and stop fretting over it, like they did in China. Anyway we can always make more kids later.

      • Jerry

        Exactly. And we must fix all the schools NOW, but let’s not worry about hospitals, factories, stores, or any other places where a lot of people might be.

        I think earthquakes are related to global warming, by the way.
        Everyone knows that things expand when heated. The earth is getting heated way, way up so must expand against itself – and BANG, you have a big one!!

        If everyone would ride their bikes we could avoid the next quake.

        • dean

          Jerry…your humor is underwhelming, but if you want to make light of school safety, be my guest. Hospitals, factories, stores, and other places are privately owned. It is up to private building owners to make safety upgrades for their employees and customers. When they remodel they have to conform to code. Public schools are our responsibility.

  • Jerry

    Could it be possible that our all-caring, all-seeing, all-knowing government, then, has caused a situation of grave concern for all students throught abject mismanagement? As you so artfully pointed out, it is the responsibility of the government – but where have they been all these years to allow all this danger! Asleep at the wheel. Per usual.
    I guess no one ever heard of these earthquakes until just recently. The China mess was certainly a call to brave action. What about volcano preparedness? I think we are way behind on that one. And, trust me, it will happen. Hood is just simmering below the surface – another St. Helens for CERTAIN – we just don’t know when. If only we did. Then we could cap it off with concrete or something. I think volancoes are related to global warming, too, and I am not doing any underwhelming humor. It is fact.
    The earth is heating up from all sources, both in and out, and something has to give. And when it does – LOOK OUT!!!
    Now, I must get ready to fireproof my roof against the falling ash. There are so many things to do and so little time.
    I am sure glad government is on my side.

    • dean

      Jerry….it could also be that the risk of subduction zone earthquakes was not discovered until fairly recently, after the school buildings in questions were already built. New building codes have higher standards.

      Mt Hood will errupt again…no question. If you live in its shadow, downwind, or along one of the main rivers that come of of it then yep, you might want to be aware and take some precautionary measures. Fire proof roofing is a good idea for reasons other than volcanic ash, which is not flammable by the time is settles down, but can be heavy enough to collapse a roof.

      Key difference is that volcanic erruptions usually give us some warning signs, allowing for evacuation. Big earthquakes do not.

      You are right Jerry. We are way too concerned about all these things. I would have your seatbelts and airbags removed from your Explorer to lighten the load and improve your mileage. At the speeds you drive, you don’t really need them anyway.

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