Schools prepare as shelters in a storm

Construction crews work on the new school campus in Seaside.

With construction underway in Seaside to build schools outside the tsunami inundation zone and a bond on the ballot in Warrenton in November to do the same, preparing schools for a disaster is in the limelight.

But as schools look for opportunities to relocate to higher ground to be safer in an earthquake and tsunami, administrators will face a new task: how to prepare to be a community’s default shelter when disaster strikes.

Schools are at the center of the state’s emergency planning strategy. The state has emphasized making aging school buildings more earthquake resilient, with programs like the seismic retrofit grant, which has awarded more than $225 million to bring schools up to building code standards.

While schools are traditionally expected to serve as shelters, an analysis by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission found there has been little to no planning by school districts for how schools would be used following a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake.

“People have a lot of assumptions that schools would be good shelters,” said Tiffany Brown, the Clatsop County emergency manager, who helped author the report. “They are buildings that accommodate large numbers of people, but that’s where it stops. That’s where our planning has kind of stopped.”

For schools to be ready, more needs to be done to educate staff on what it takes to run a shelter, as well as the importance of planning for necessities like food, water, communication and medical supplies. Preparing a school to serve the mass care needs of a community takes planning well outside the scope of the typical responsibilities of educators, the report states, but because there is no state mandate requiring it, little to no coordination between schools and other agencies has occurred.

That’s why the advisory commission recommended to the Legislature to have clearer guidelines for what should be expected of schools, including requiring preparedness messaging and encouraging supply storage near school grounds.

“I think there are two different stages: Preparing your own constituency and preparing as a community shelter,” Brown said. “Clatsop County is at the first.”

The majority of schools in the county have some coordination with the American Red Cross to be used as shelters, said Jenny Carver, the local Red Cross disaster program manager.

For some, like Warrenton Grade School and Seaside High School, gearing up to be a community shelter didn’t seem practical given the likelihood the campuses would be inundated by a tsunami, but this fact isn’t disqualifying, Carver said.

“We look at inundation zones, but that’s not the only disaster we prepare for,” she said.

But this strategy can also be complicated. As was seen in the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, regions like the Oregon Coast can become so isolated, agencies like the Red Cross can’t get access to run shelters.

“Having new schools be seismically sound and out of the inundation zone will change the conversation,” Brown said. “But we have to build them, plan for them, with shelters in mind. Then we can use them that way after.”

Thinking about the school district’s community role in an emergency has been on the mind of Seaside School District Superintendent Sheila Roley ever since the $99.7 million bond was passed by voters in 2016.

“We will have the physical site, but we can’t on our own provide the extended resources the community could possibility need,” Roley said.

In some avenues, the school district has started to plan ahead. Every administrator has been trained to use ham radios to help communicate if phone lines go down. The district is coordinating with the city to install a water reservoir at the new campus that will be seismically safe and 400 feet above sea level. Plans have been discussed to establish cache sites filled with food.

But school districts don’t necessarily have large budget line items or staff for emergency preparedness training or supplies. “This really is an ongoing conversation,” Roley said. “It’s not within the district’s realm to provide for a major community response. This is going to have to be a community effort.”

At Warrenton Grade School, Vice Principal Robbie Porter, who leads the charge on emergency preparedness for the school’s 800 students, said if the $38.5 million bond passes in November she would hope to see the new campus as a safe gathering spot.

But with only three grades initially moving out of the inundation zone, as an administrator, her concern and priority still lies in addressing the needs of the existing campus. Porter has worked on doing regular drills and developed procedures on the best way to evacuate students.

To be successful, other gaps, such as proper communication tools, food, water and shelter supplies and training, still need to be addressed.

“I want to network early … get those connections so in case of the worst-case scenario we can be ready,” Porter said. “How can we work together to make that happen?”



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