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After failed school levy, bill is next chance to protect Washington schools from earthquakes, tsunamis

A state engineering assessment found that over 90% of the schools it surveyed would likely be vulnerable in an earthquake.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A Washington bill that proposes up to $525 million to strengthen schools in the state against earthquakes is one step closer to passing.

The legislation has already passed the Senate and now heads to House. If it makes it through to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, it could change how some school construction is paid for by the state. 

The issue of preparing public schools for earthquake-related impacts was magnified after a school bond levy failed to pass for the North Beach School District in Grays Harbor County. That levy would have raised funds through property taxes to replace a school and build two vertical evacuation structures.

The 66-year-old Pacific Beach Elementary tops a list of the most-earthquake vulnerable schools in the state, according to a recent engineering assessment. It is in the inundation zone for earthquake-driven tsunamis in the coastal town.

The structures would have been built for two schools in Ocean Shores. 

"I think the good thing that came out of the failed bond…I think is a number of our legislators have woken up to the need,” said North Beach superintendent Andy Kelly.  

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Kelly said he can understand the failure, as many voters in his district are poor or retired on fixed incomes, while property values, especially in Ocean Shores, are relatively high.

“One of the things that came out, that came back from our community, is really a belief that the state should bear a significant part of the burden for tsunami safety for school districts that are in tsunami zones,” said Kelly.  

Kelly testified before the House Capital Budget Committee on Friday morning.

Jim Buck is a former GOP legislator from Clallam County who has led earthquake preparation and resilience in his community. He picked up the drive for school seismic safety after the state engineering assessment report. 

Of the more than 500 school buildings that were evaluated in the assessment, over 90% would likely be vulnerable in an earthquake. 

“But there’s still 3,900 schools in the state that still need to be looked at,” said Buck. 

If the legislation is passed, he said it's not clear how much would be budgeted to help schools begin strengthening themselves against tremors and tsunami waves. 

“Somewhere between 46 and 525 million,” Buck said, while urging that the legislature adopt the higher number. 

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