In the aftermath of the Surfside tragedy in Florida, we have received multiple inquiries from school districts regarding how their buildings would fare in a major earthquake. Notwithstanding the Field Act—which has required that school buildings be built to withstand major earthquakes since 1933—the answer is, it depends.
Many school buildings throughout California, and especially tilt-up concrete buildings constructed prior to a July 1, 1978, are vulnerable to collapse in the event of a major earthquake. While these structures met Field Act requirements at the time of construction, subsequent earthquakes made clear that they are more susceptible than previously thought.
The Division of the State Architect (“DSA”) maintains a database of pre-1978 buildings that may be more vulnerable to earthquake forces. You can request information from the DSA as to whether any of your district’s buildings are on the list.
Should there be a tragedy in which students or staff are injured or killed in unsafe buildings, the district or its board members might be liable. (See 47 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 163, 166 (1966); Gov. Code, § 835.; 43 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 209 (1964).)
Currently, there is limited funding to help school districts ensure their buildings meet current Field Act standards. The state’s Seismic Mitigation Program provides funding for school districts to repair or replace seismically unsafe facilities, but generally requires a 50% match from districts, unless they qualify for hardship assistance. The federal Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program is another potential source of funding for projects to make school buildings earthquake-safe. The program is designed to assist states and local governments with hazard mitigation projects. Notwithstanding these funding opportunities, making sure pre-1978 buildings comply with the modern Field Act standards is for most districts only a partially-funded mandate. Therefore, securing funding almost invariably involves a challenging dialogue with voters about the need for resources to ensure earthquake safety.
It has been almost 90 years, but the infamous Long Beach Earthquake of March 10, 1933, remains a sobering reminder of the risks of inaction. The earthquake struck in the evening, causing 120 fatalities and damaging 120 schools. 70 schools were destroyed. Had the earthquake occurred during school hours, thousands of students and teachers would likely have been killed. This was the earthquake that inspired the passage of the Field Act.
We encourage our clients to address earthquake safety issues, not because it is easy, but because it is important. The safety of children and staff may be at stake. Please reach out if you wish to discuss the safety of the buildings in your district. Our attorneys have decades of experience helping school districts with their facilities issues, including complying with earthquake safety requirements, and if needed, we can help you chart a course to earthquake safety.