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School Seismic Safety
Credit: Courtesy of WA Department of Natural Resources

Is your kid's school safe in a quake? This retired WA lawmaker is sounding the alarm

Washington lawmakers have known for some time that many of the state's public school buildings are at risk of collapse in a major earthquake. This summer, a long-awaited report quietly came out. It found that the vast majority of Washington state schools (93%) were likely to experience a collapse that would trap, injure, or kill the students and staff inside.

Washington state has more than 500 schools.

Jim Buck is a former Republican state lawmaker and a retired engineer. When he got his hands on the massive report, he decided to write up an easy-to-understand summary, and mail it out to thousands of people, including PTA members and first responders. Buck discussed the report with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Jim Buck: Why didn't they tell the parents? This is pretty earth shattering. This is a lot like having your school on fire, and forgetting to pull the fire alarm. I think this is something the citizens of the state of Washington should be very, very aware of.

The second thing that went through my mind is that all of the study is couched in terms of "How much is it going to cost to fix it? How much is it going to cost to replace it? What's the timeframe?" There is very, very little acknowledgement of what the loss of life would be, and what a threat to the children of the state it could be. There are communities in the state that could lose a generation of kids.

Kim Malcolm: You and your wife decided to translate this report into what you call "readable English." You mailed your synopsis to thousands of people across the state. Why did you do that?

It's a very difficult piece of paper to read, and the average mom and pop don’t have the time or the patience to go through something like this. I thought it was important to go through it, combine the most important parts into a short, readable summary, and send it out and see what happened.

You've spent time in the Legislature. You know what it takes to get bills through. What do you think is keeping lawmakers from moving on this?

Well, there are a bunch of people in Olympia who don't want their parts of the capital budget to be reduced to fund schools. I think this is wrong. I doubt if there's a single one of those people that have the stones to stand up and say, I want my slice of the pie and I don't care whose kid has to die so I can get it.

It would seem to me that this is the kind of issue that might actually work across the aisle. Trying to keep kids safe seems to me a pretty safe political position to stand from.

Yeah, that's a pretty bipartisan issue. What I just said about divvying up the pie, this is not business as usual in the capital budget committee now. This is an emergency. This is life safety at risk. These guys are going to have to step forward and protect the kids of this state.

Why are you doing this?

I've been working on the Cascadia earthquake for a long time. I've done the casualty figures. I know what this is going to look like. The FEMA rep for Region 10 has said that at best it could be 11,000 deaths. At worst, it's too horrible to talk about. One of the things that I've been working on is trying to figure out how to minimize those casualties. If we can figure out that by fixing schools we can save kids and cut that number way down, that's something we ought to do.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.