Students leap to help assess seismic stability of schools

With their classmates huddled nearby around the laptop of DNR geologists, a group of students wait for the count of three to jump in the air together. Their landing generates a tiny earthquake picked up by sensors laid in the ground.

Around the computer, students yell “whoa!” as waves from the student-generated quake show up on the screen.

Last fall, DNR seismologists visited 21 schools in Thurston County for a project aimed at assessing how well these buildings would withstand earthquakes.

With more than 1000 earthquakes every year in Washington, DNR geologists and other state agencies believe it’s time we asked, are all of our schools safe enough?

Earthquake vulnerability is based on both a building’s structure, and the types of rock and soil beneath its foundation. In an earthquake, soil type influences how much shaking occurs at the surface.

After geologists look at the potential for ground shaking at each site, engineers and building officials will estimate how fragile each building is by inspecting schools to note conditions and irregularities.

Computer hazard software will use these data to simulate earthquakes for each school site. These simulations will estimate how much damage buildings might sustain at different levels of ground shaking.

The Thurston County assessment added to our limited knowledge of the seismic stability of Washington’s schools. A 2010 effort sized up the soil around schools in Aberdeen and Walla Walla.

This effort is being coordinated through the Washington State Seismic Safety Committee and the Washington State Emergency Management Division.

Assessing the safety of school buildings has been a priority of the Seismic Safety Committee for many years, according to Dave Norman, (DNR) co-chair of the committee. Funding for the pilot project has been provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Read more about the project in this Seattle Times article.

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