Many California schools may be unprepared for earthquake

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School buildings across the state - including several sites within the Berkeley Unified School District - may be unfit to safely endure California's next big earthquake.

An investigation conducted by the watchdog reporting group California Watch found that at least 20,000 school building projects across the state are not certified under state seismic regulations and that roughly 1,400 have known "safety concerns that arose during construction."

According to the report, 16 sites in Berkeley's school district contain at least one building that may be unsafe. Each of those building projects is either mentioned on a list compiled in 2002 called the "AB 300" list of potentially hazardous structures, or it has been named by the state's architectural office as a "Level 4" project - meaning the state issued a warning to the district that the building in question has known safety issues.

The report names Thousand Oaks Elementary and John Muir Elementary schools as two Berkeley sites that each received one Letter 4 alert from the state at some point in the past. In March 2010, both sites were lowered to a less severe, Letter 3 risk alert. According to California Watch, the state lowered the severity of the warning issued to many projects during the course of the investigation, but the report maintains that those changes may have been made without state officials actually visiting and reevaluating the sites.

In addition, the investigation provides information about which schools in Berkeley are located in geographical locations considered especially dangerous during or after an earthquake. Cragmont, Oxford and John Muir Elementary schools are all located relatively near a fault zone that runs along the east side of Berkeley, and Rosa Parks Elementary School falls within the coastal liquefaction zone, which is an area where "violent earthquakes loosen water-saturated soil, essentially turning the soil into quicksand."

Berkeley Unified was not the only district at fault. Oakland Unified School District has 26 AB 300 projects, though the district has over four times the amount of students as Berkeley's. Alameda Unified, which is much nearer to Berkeley Unified in size, had 10 AB 300 projects, and its proximity to the San Francisco Bay places essentially the entire district within a liquefaction zone.

In all of Alameda County, Berkeley Unified tied Fremont Unified School District and Livermore Valley Joint Unified District as the only districts to have two Letter 4 warnings issued to them. Two other districts within the county had one, and the rest received no Letter 4 warnings.

The report also noted that neither of the state's two most recent and notably destructive quakes, Loma Prieta in 1989 and Northridge in 1994, occurred during hours while schools were in session. It said many children across the state will not be safe if the next "Big One" hits on a weekday during school hours.

Jeffrey Butterfield is the lead local schools reporter. Contact him at [email protected]

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