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School Quake Safety Questioned

California Watch investigative reporting squad and Patch collaborate to review building safety standards at public schools. Numerous potential problems uncovered.

How safe is your school in an earthquake? Patch.com has partnered with California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, to find out.

A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.

California began regulating school architecture for quake safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.

A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet California Watch says only two schools have been able to access a $200-million fund for upgrades.

Where does your school stand in all this? Patch has been digging through a maze of documents and interviewing officials for answers. The state grades individual school construction projects using a four-letter rating system for compliance with quake regulations. Letter 4 is the lowest rating; letter 1 is the best.

But judging a school’s structural safety using these ratings can be tricky. In recent years, according to California Watch, state officials upgraded hundreds of Letter 4 buildings to Letter 3 without visiting schools to verify that issues were fixed.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the buildings would fall apart in a quake. Because local school district officials and builders can be criminally prosecuted if students or staff are injured by tremor damage at an uncertified campus, they hire their own inspectors and don’t open any structure that isn’t deemed up to snuff, said Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Division of the State’s Architect.

Lamoureux also downplayed concerns about Letter 4 buildings reclassified to Letter 3, saying most simply involved missing paperwork. “We don’t believe there are any significant safety issues with any of the Letter 3 projects,” he told Patch on Wednesday.

Even if a school’s construction is sound, it could face other hazards. California Watch also created an interactive map that charts school locations in relation to earthquake faults, landslide areas and liquefaction zones. In liquefaction zones, soil can turn to mush during strong tremors, shaking buildings more violently and damaging underground infrastructure.

Schools in Rancho Santa Margarita are generally in pretty good shape. However, almost all are within a quarter-mile of either a liquefaction or landslide zone. Three, however, seem to be more at risk than others: , Wagon Wheel Elementary and Trabuco Elementary are all built on liquefaction zones.

Here is a look at local schools that might have reason for concern:

  • Robinson Elementary is within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • Trabuco Elementary is inside a liquefaction zone and within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • is within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone and within a quarter-mile of a liquefaction zone.
  • Tesoro High is inside a liquefaction zone and within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • Wagon Wheel Elementary is inside a liquefaction zone and within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • is within a quarter-mile of a liquefaction zone and within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • is within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.
  • is within a quarter-mile of a liquefaction zone and within a quarter-mile of a landslide zone.

This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about Patch's partnership with California Watch.

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