Mexican earthquake raises concerns about B.C. schools 

Whistler schools are safe, say officials

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS Citizens help firefighters remove rubble and find missing persons after an earthquake in Mexico this month. The disaster is raising questions about how prepared British Columbia's schools would be in the event of a similar earthquake here.
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  • EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS Citizens help firefighters remove rubble and find missing persons after an earthquake in Mexico this month. The disaster is raising questions about how prepared British Columbia's schools would be in the event of a similar earthquake here.

A major earthquake in central Mexico has led to renewed questions about the safety of B.C. schools. And while School District 48's Whistler schools are considered earthquake ready, many B.C. schools require upgrading.

Across the province, 171 schools are considered "high risk" and require upgrading, including Squamish's Howe Sound Secondary School.

Ian Currie, SD 48's director of operations, said that much of Howe Sound Secondary has already been upgraded. The changes were carried out when a new section was added to the school.

The shop classes and science wing are still deemed high risk, though. The upgrades, he said, are in the works: They were the No. 1 priority of last year's five-year capital plan, with $10 million set aside for the task.

Currie said that communications with the provincial government have been productive. "I believe they're hoping to address these high-risk projects in a timely manner," he said.

In 2009, Myrtle Philip Community School was upgraded. In addition to high-risk schools that require structural changes, there are also medium-risk schools that require smaller fixes to ensure student and teacher safety. There are five such schools in SD 48: Blackwater Creek Elementary in D'Arcy; and Don Ross Middle School, Garibaldi Highlands Elementary, Mamquam Elementary and Stawamus Elementary in Squamish.

Currie said that the upgrades — which involve things like ensuring lighting is secure and changing valves to guard against fires — are being made on an on-going basis. "I would imagine we would have these done within five years or less," he said.

Currently Whistler schools do not have any portables. But given the growth of the community, Currie said that's likely to change. Portables will be required to be anchored to metal rods buried beneath the ground and signed off on by structural engineers as being earthquake safe.

Upgrades to B.C. schools began in the mid-2000s and were originally scheduled to be completed by 2020.

The previous Liberal provincial government extended that deadline to 2030, in part do to disagreements with school boards over the scope of repairs.

According to government figures, 165 schools have been upgraded; 14 are under construction, 12 are proceeding to construction, and 153 are in "business development phase."

"Business development phase" roughly translates to "we're thinking about whether it's worth doing," said Patti Bacchus, a former chair of the Vancouver School Board and trustee who has been pushing for upgrades since the early 2000s.

The Liberals were "fixated on the lowest-cost option," she said.

Bacchus is encouraged by B.C.'s new NDP government, which has said it will accelerate the upgrades. She noted, however, that the NDP has not laid out a new timeline for when these upgrades will be completed.

"I am cautiously optimistic," she said. The provincial government "needs to be pushed to be held to account."

In an emailed statement to Pique, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said, "all high-risk schools in B.C. will be completed as quickly as possible."

"We are committed to accelerating the school seismic mitigation program to make sure all our schools are safe for students and teachers... (And) we are reviewing School District 48's capital plan and working with the district on moving forward with upgrades at Howe Sound Secondary School in the future."

For many, the Mexico earthquake brought school safety into sharp focus. Numerous buildings collapsed, killing over 270 people. One of the most heart-wrenching tragedies came when an elementary school fell, killing 20 students.

For Bacchus, the tragedy underlines the need for the province to act urgently.

"It pains me to think about what it would be like for a kid under there," she said.

She is calling for a provincial task force that will lay out clear timelines and act transparently. Seismic upgrading, she said, can easily be put on the backburner, but it demands urgent action.

"This is a tragedy we know we can prevent," said Bacchus.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Sept. 30, the Resort Municipality of Whistler will host an emergency preparedness fair. Held at Olympic Plaza from 1 to 7 p.m., visitors will have an opportunity to learn about earthquake safety and try the "ShakeZone" mobile earthquake simulator.

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