DOWNEY (CBS) — Parents at Warren High School in Downey were shocked by what we discovered about a two-story concrete classroom building that does not meet today’s earthquake-related building codes.
But it was just one of thousands of school buildings that state experts said could be putting children at risk in the next big earthquake, including schools from Laguna Beach to Ventura; San Bernardino to Glendora; and many communities in between.
The wakeup call came on the evening of March 10, 1933, in Long Beach when 230 school buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged in a 6.3-magnitude quake.
Just one month later strict regulations were passed making public schools some of the safest buildings in the state. But there is a loophole and the experts told us it is a big one. State law only requires school buildings to meet the building codes that were in existence at the time the buildings were constructed.
So when the math building at Warren High School was built in January of 1955, it was perfectly acceptable to use non-ductile concrete. Sixteen years later, when another non-ductile concrete building, Olive View Hospital, collapsed in the Sylmar Earthquake, this type of concrete was banned in all new buildings.
But the public schools cast in concrete before the ban have been allowed to stand to this day.
“Non ductile means it doesn’t like to bend,” said geologist and architect Gary McGavin.
He has designed more than a billion-dollars worth of school buildings in California and is a commissioner on the seismic safety commission.
“The non-ductile reinforced concrete tried to remain rigid, tried to hold on, but at some point it can’t hold on anymore and it releases all its energy explosively,” McGavin explained.
Responding to the concern about old school buildings, the state put together a list of all existing structures that carry the risk of collapse in an earthquake.
More than 7,500 buildings were identified, including the gym at Laguna Beach High School and many of the classrooms at Sunnyside Elementary School in Garden Grove. According to state records, those buildings are made of stiff concrete walls attached to flexible roofs, another type of construction at risk of collapse in an earthquake.
At Glendora High School nearly all of the classrooms are made from non-ductile concrete. Same story at Hillview Middle School in East Whittier.
You might assume that seismic upgrades have been made to those buildings, but…
“There have been no seismic upgrades,” said Lee Bean who heads operations for the East Whittier Unified School District.
“I don’t have concerns. All of our buildings have been through three major earthquakes and have shown no structural damage, so therefore we’re pretty confident they will withstand anything that’s comparable to what we’ve already seen,” Bean said.
“That’s kind of like, ‘I’ve never been in a bad car accident, so I shouldn’t wear my safety belt.’ [It] makes no sense. You should be prepared,” McGavin said.
But there is some progress. L.A. Unified said that all remaining non-ductile concrete buildings will be retrofitted or removed within the next few years. The district has a full-time structural engineer on staff, who is inspecting all of the older buildings.
But the buildings we looked at have not been looked at because of a money problem.
“We haven’t done it because they didn’t attach any money to that bill to enable us to do that.”
He explained that there was no point in having a structural engineer come to take a look at a building if there is no money to fix it.
But McGavin said that retrofits can be inexpensive.
“Sometimes they can be fixed as simply as putting a carbon fiber rap around the columns and the beams,” he said.
Parents at Warren High in Downey questioned money allocation.
“They spend almost 2-point-something million on the new track and field, why couldn’t they put some of that money into the buildings,” asked Tim Sullivan, whose daughter, Kaitlin, is a senior.
“It’s scary because earthquakes are probably one of the things I’m most scared of. I never contemplated that the building would fall,” Kaitlin said.
Does it make sense for us to continue to send kids into public schools that were built decades ago and have not been retrofitted, I asked?
“If you’re going to school every single day, five days a week, you probably ought to be reasonably safe from partial collapse.”
We’re not there yet, but…
“No, we know how to get there.”
The lessons were learned forty years ago. The question today is, are they worth the price?
Green: Building types expected to perform well in future earthquakes
Red: Building types requiring detailed seismic evaluation
Orange: Mix of both building types above