State report informs schools of possible dangers

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 30, 2014 

Sorry, students, but a volcano erupting under your school the day of a dreaded test is unlikely in the Mid-Columbia.

But there are plenty of other natural disasters state officials say could affect the region's schools and that communities should prepare for.

Earthquakes and wildfires are the biggest risks facing schools in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, according to a draft hazard plan for schools released Wednesday.

Mid-Columbia schools also are at risk from landslides, floods and disasters farther afield, even volcanoes.

"We don't want anyone to panic," said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. "It's just getting people information."

Regional emergency officials said the state report isn't anything new and many public agencies, including school districts, are aware and prepared for possible natural disasters.

"We meet with them quite often," said Jeremy Beck, manager with Benton County Emergency Management.

OSPI used a federal grant to develop the 270-page, K-12 Facilities Hazard Mitigation Plan with the help of school districts, other government agencies and private analysts over the past two years.

It aims to inform districts and communities about the possible dangers and provides suggestions on how to prepare and address them. The report only focuses on natural disasters; no consideration was given to human-caused incidents such as a hazardous material spill or act of terrorism.

The draft report is part of a larger initiative to map the state's schools and inventory their conditions, Olson said. However, the landslide that wiped out the village of Oso in Western Washington in March, killing more than 40 people, highlights the risks some communities and schools face.

"As recent events in our state underscore, natural disasters can and do occur - and they can have terrible consequences," State Superintendent Randy Dorn said in a release.

The report indicates a 6.8-magnitude earthquake focused on the Hite Fault Zone, which passes near Walla Walla, could cause damage approaching $100 million and potentially kill and injure people.

There are federally identified flood zones in the region and Benton County is one of four Eastern Washington counties with an elevated risk of damaging floods.

Numerous schools throughout the Lower Yakima Valley and around the Tri-Cities face threats from wildfires and while there aren't any identifiable volcanoes close by that could send lava and a pyroclastic flow of hot gas and rock toward buildings, ash from an eruption could pose a risk and hamper evacuations.

Kahlotus' combined K-12 school in North Franklin County is at a high risk for a potential landslide, while Prosser Heights Elementary School was deemed a low landslide risk.

Even conditions characteristic to the region's desert climate -- sparse precipitation and high winds -- pose risks for schools, as they could knock out power lines or leave school wells dry.

But these scenarios aren't news to emergency planners.

Benton County emergency personnel worked with West Richland residents last winter when there was flooding on the Yakima River and there are wildfires most summers. Prosser school officials are routinely notified of slide risks following heavy rains, Beck said.

Beck's agency doesn't help schools draw up mitigation plans but does run drills and exercises with them.

Most recent training has involved a gunman on school grounds or fire evacuations but Beck said he knows schools have plans for a variety of scenarios.

"It's just overall preparedness, you just never know what you have to be prepared for," he said. "They say the 'first 72' are on you. It's going to be at least 72 hours before (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is on the scene."

And residents should note that the region's risk from some of the more extreme events such as an earthquake are low. A strong earthquake hitting the Hite Fault Zone has the possibility of striking every 140,000 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

And what about that volcanic ash that could cancel school? The Mid-Columbia could see maybe a centimeter of ash accumulation once every 30 years, the report said, so students are better off just hoping for a snow day.

The full report is available www.k12.wa.us and comments can be made before July 25 online at http://bit.ly/WAschoolhazards. The final document is expected to be released in the fall.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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