Friday September 22, 2017

'High-risk' B.C. schools not ready for an earthquake, says parent

Listen 19:09

As rescue workers still desperately scramble to save any survivors from a collapsed school in Mexico's deadly earthquake, parents in B.C. worry it's a tragedy waiting to happen in their own province.

Experts warn that it's not a matter of "if" a catastrophic earthquake will strike B.C. — but "when."

With as many as 350 schools in the province at high risk of collapsing in an earthquake, parents are urging seismic upgrades to schools have to happen faster.

'Some of our most dangerous buildings in earthquakes are our schools and that's where our children are.' - Patti Bacchus, parent advocate

Patti Bacchus, a former trustee and former chair of the Vancouver School Board, has been advocating for 15 years, calling for safety measures in B.C. schools in an event of an earthquake.

"Even though we know this, and we've known this in B.C. for many years now, we still have thousands of students in B.C. who spend their school days in buildings that have been assessed by engineers to be at high risk of significant structural failure or even collapse … even a moderate earthquake," she tells The Current's Friday host Susan Ormiston.

In 2005, Bacchus explains the provincial government responded to parents and groups pleading to have a seismic upgrade program. 

Mexico-quake-silencio

Rescuers ask for silence while searching for survivors buried under the rubble and debris of a flattened building in Mexico City, Sept. 19, 2017.

"At that point, they really had no plan in place to upgrade at-risk schools, and they didn't really know the extent of how dangerous they were," she says.

The government agreed and committed to upgrading all of B.C.'s high-risk schools by 2020.

"There were hundreds of them."

One of the challenges, Bacchus points out is B.C. schools aren't built to resist earthquakes.

"They're often old, unreinforced masonry buildings that are brittle and heavy, sometimes over 100-years-old … They are much more likely to fail in an earthquake than your typical wood frame house would," Bacchus tells Ormiston.

"Some of our most dangerous buildings in earthquakes are our schools, and that's where our children are."

MEXICO-QUAKE/

Members of Israeli and Mexican rescue teams and volunteers search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Mexico City, Sept. 21, 2017. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

As the government's deadline approaches, Bacchus says many upgrades have been made but not enough.

"They're still over 150 schools in B.C. that have no funding in place, and more that have something in place but have yet to be constructed," she says.

"There really wasn't an implementation plan. They really downloaded it to school boards and said, 'Come to us with funding proposals' and set out some criteria for funding but those have been changing over the years that become more and more difficult to access."

The slow pace to have all the upgrades completed is frustrating for school boards and for parents like Bacchus.

She says safety precautions are always taken into account with children and yet this isn't a priority.

"We use seat belts and child-safety seats for our younger children. We put helmets on them and sunscreen ... and then, you know, each day you're sending your child into school, and all you can really do is just hope and cross your fingers that the earthquake doesn't come," Bacchus says.

"It's not a terribly difficult task. It just takes real political will to get it done."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Ashley Mak.