How safe are Anchorage schools should another large earthquake hit?
It's been close to a year since the November 7.1 magnitude earthquake rocked Southcentral Alaska. Fifteen schools in the Anchorage School District are still in need of repairs while two remain offline. The ongoing process of fortifying the district schools and fitting them with seismic upgrades is a daunting task.
"One thing we try to do is when ASD is doing a re-roof project, we work with them and combine seismic retrofit," Project engineer Ellen Hamel said. "So if you're working on a building, you have construction on a building, it makes sense to make seismic upgrades when you're doing the re-roof."
The school district is working with FEMA for federal earthquake assistance, applying for grants and asking the public for help in the latest bond proposal to help upgrade every school.
ASD Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth says the district is aware of deficiencies in its schools. They want to fix the issues to improve seismic performance as well as reduce risks for students and staff.
While ASD works on upgrades, questions swirl around how safe the schools are should another large quake hit. Roth says there's no precise answer to that question, but looking at the condition of the schools before and after the earthquake could provide some insight.
"So I think the 7.1 earthquake that we had is probably a pretty good indicator of how our schools would perform. I mean, some of these schools, again, they date back to 1964. They actually survived that four and a half minute 9.2 subduction earthquake," Roth said.
The earthquake happened at 8:29 a.m. with high schoolers between classes and middle schoolers just getting settled into their desks. How safe would students be if the quake happened later in the day? Would there have been more injuries?
"I don't think, I mean, my opinion is that, we would have seen more injuries from earthquake damage," Roth said. "I don't think that would pan out."
Roth points to the video released from Mears Middle School where students immediately got under their desks. He says the district trains its students and staff how to respond to emergencies. When the earthquake hit, Roth says kids responded to that training.
After the earthquake, the district made sure that if a building wasn't safe for students, it wouldn't be forced to stay open.
Those working in the district say the upgrades ASD is putting into their schools are working. Proof, they say, can be found inside Gruening Middle School.
While the school is currently offline, upgrades inside at least one classroom survived the quake.
"Our life skills classroom was remodeled literally the summer before the earthquake and you can tell that it's pretty much intact," Principal Bobby Jefts said during a recent walk through.
Student safety remains a priority for the district as is getting all of its damaged schools repaired and upgraded. Roth says it's a long process and one ASD is tackling, one building at a time.
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