LA schools quake safety: Only 46 of 667 at-risk buildings get seismic evaluation

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More than seven years after it identified hundreds of school buildings that presented a greater risk of collapse in an earthquake, the Los Angeles Unified School District has done comprehensive seismic studies on just a few dozen of the highest-risk structures, according to newly released data.

Some 667 buildings were placed on the LAUSD list in 2006 because of risk factors such as their age, type of construction, and proximity to an earthquake fault.

The list was created after a 1999 law, AB300, required the State Architect to inventory the seismic safety of concrete tilt-up and other non-wood public school buildings. Those buildings fell into two categories. Category one included buildings that were expected to survive an earthquake largely intact.
The second category were buildings that, quoting from the State Architect's instructions to school districts -- "require detailed seismic evaluation to determine if they can be expected to achieve life-safety performance."

That's government-speak for whether people in the buildings have a decent chance of surviving a big earthquake.

But so far only 46 of the 667 structures in that category have received that seismic evaluation. Even fewer have been repaired or replaced. According to a spreadsheet the LAUSD released this week in response to a request from KPCC,  it appears hundreds of buildings have had no evaluation.

"If I didn't know anything about the program, I would read that and say that no one's even bothered to look at 600 buildings to have any idea whether they are safe or not," said Mark Hovatter,  chief of LAUSD's Facilities Services Division. "We have looked and we do have an idea, and they are safe."

The school district has done some basic evaluations of all buildings on the at-risk list, but it reserves the detailed structural evaluations for the highest risk buildings.

"It goes back to the definition of evaluation," Hovatter said. "We have evaluated them and determined them to be of a lower risk. The ones that were the highest risk, we've already gone out and done full engineering assessments and retrofits."

Despite the wording of LAUSD and State Architect documents describing those buildings -- as requiring seismic safety evaluations --  such evaluations are not mandatory, said Ken Hunt, spokesman for the State Architect's office, which oversees school construction. The state cannot force LAUSD or any other school district to perform detailed seismic evaluations.

Of the district's more than 13,000 buildings, 667 were placed on the at-risk list in 2006. The district ranked them by priority.

As KPCC previously reported, all 19 of the highest-risk buildings have been retrofitted except the gym and auditorium at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar. Those are scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt.

The school board has also approved funding to repair or replace all seven buildings in the second-riskiest category. Another 165 buildings in the next highest risk tier are in line for detailed seismic evaluations.

Tom Rubin, a consultant to the independent Bond Oversight Committee that  oversees LAUSD construction spending, said the district is doing more than the law requires when it comes to seismic safety.

"The district has literally torn down buildings that were legal to use as schools and replaced them, and there was no legal requirement to do so," Rubin said.

So far, the district has spent at least $153 million on seismic upgrades. But it's got a long way to go to finish a project list totaling more than a billion dollars.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said the language of the 1999 law known as AB300 required detailed seismic evaluations of certain school buildings. The language does not appear in the law, but in reports the Division of State Architect published to explain AB300  to the public and school districts.
The law required the State Architect to report to the Legislature which school buildings needed a detailed seismic evaluation to determine their seismic risk, but the law did not mandate such evaluations. The original version of this story has been changed.


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