How safe are schools in an earthquake?
On paper, pretty shaky. But there's a bureaucratic asterisk next to that rating.
In collaboration with California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, Patch.com has been examining how well local schools would hold up if the Big One hits.
A 19-month , which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.
Using data from the Division of the State Architect’s Office, California Watch found 20,000 school projects statewide that never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
Los Alamitos Unified sits on the red-flag list. Part of the problem is location -- much of the district lies close to the Newport-Inglewood fault and rests smack dab in a liquefaction zone, a syrupy soil layer that can turn to mush during strong tremors, shaking buildings more violently. (, and elementary schools are all within a quarter mile of a fault.)
In 1933, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rumbled out of Long Beach and caused significant damage to Seal Beach, destroying portions of the old Zoeter School.
But nowadays, Los Alamitos Unified's biggest quake worry involves paperwork, not building safety.
Case in point: , where a pair of 2005 construction projects--a two-story classroom building and modernization of other buildings--have yet to be certified as earthquake-safe by the state. Officially, that gives the high school a Letter 3 safety rating, the second-worst mark on the state's four-letter quake scale.
But, in reality, Los Alamitos High appears to be the victim of a long-running and sometimes comical string of bureaucratic snafus.
During one 15-month stretch, for example, the state sent a revolving door of inspectors to monitor the high-school classrooms project. Each turnover delayed progress, said Jim Poper, director of facilities, maintenance and operations for Los Alamitos Unified. Later, district officials twice submitted documents to the state for certification, but were told both times the paperwork never made it, Poper said.
The third time, district officials drove to the Division of the State Architect’s regional office and showed state employees the paperwork was already on file, he said.
State records also list Rush Elementary School and several portable classrooms as uncertified. Wrong again. The district got rid of its portable rooms several years ago. And Rush Elementary isn't even a school anymore. It now houses the .
"It concerns us that buildings we do not own are on the list," Poper said.
Then again, school officials also messed up. Gretchen Zeagler, a spokeswoman for the Division of the State Architect, said California officials requested certification documents for the new high school classrooms six years ago. In 2008, they gave up and closed the file without certification because the district never responded.
Poper concedes the district’s former architect wasn't as diligent as the current one about submitting paperwork. It wasn’t until 2010 that the district sought to reopen the certification process, according to state officials.
But both sides predict the situation will soon be resolved. “This is a documents-are-missing issue, not a safety-of-the-schools issue,” Zeagler said.
Indeed, even when documents are MIA, school officials in California are generally vigilant about making sure buildings are up to snuff, said Eric Lamoureux, one of Zeagler's colleagues. That's partly because school board members and builders can be criminally prosecuted if a student or staff member is injured by tremor damage at an uncertified campus.
So Los Alamitos Unified hires geotechnical consultants and certified inspectors on all construction projects, Poper said. With $19 million in bond money, the district is in the process of modernizing several school campuses. Hopefully, paperwork won't be an issue.
This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about with California Watch.