Principal Marcia Koff has approximately 500 students under her charge, from kindergarten through fifth grade, and she wants to ensure that all of them know what it takes to stay safe in an earthquake.
If the ground starts trembling while school is in session, she has plans in place to keep her students and teachers safe. Everyone in the small school will evacuate to the schoolyard, where there’s an emergency shed with a three-day supply of food, water and first-aid equipment.
What Koff and other public school principals in Encino don't have to be as concerned about is the structural integrity of their buildings.
None of the schools has been identified in a report released Thursday by California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting service, which conducted a 19-month investigation and uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.
California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the state Field Act, a legislative response to the magnitude-6.4 Long Beach earthquake of that year. However, data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office DSA—a regulatory body that oversees the construction of public schools—shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.
According to California Watch’s records, all of the public elementary and middle schools in Encino have been evaluated by the Los Angeles Unified School District and meet all the structural seismic codes.
But every school in Encino sits in what geologists call a liquefaction zone. During liquefaction, the soil loosens, which can cause building foundations to cave in or sink.
Koff said that the district has not addressed the liquefaction hazard with her.
“I don’t know how often they do those surveys, but personally, no one has discussed with me the geological area that we’re in,” said Koff, who has been the principal of Encino Elementary for one year.
“As a new principal to Encino, they could have given that information prior and maybe had a whole discussion with the previous principal. Since I’ve been here, that has not come up, but that doesn’t mean there is not some directive that will come out.”
Encino Patch also asked Leslie Zarate-Wise, the principal of the , what kind of earthquake preparedness plans are in place. The small neighborhood school serves the needs of approximately 200 disabled students ages 3 through 13 who have a variety of severe disabilities including mental retardation; autism; physical, hearing and vision impairments; and emotional and behavioral problems.
“We have followed district policy in making sure everyone has what they need,” Zarate-Wise said.
She said the school has emergency drills once a month and is well-prepared for an earthquake. But when asked how Lull Special Education Center is prepared for the threat of soil liquefaction, she asked to terminate the interview.
“You’re kind of out of my realm of experience,” she admitted.
Although Koff and Zarate-Wise are not aware of a specific liquefaction emergency plan, they said LAUSD has specific procedures to be used in preparing for, and responding to, school emergencies. Teachers were recently reminded to update their Community Emergency Response Team training.
LAUSD officials are also trying to close the preparedness gap by participating in the , a statewide program that helps people and organizations prepare for major earthquakes. All of the Encino public schools participate in the Shakeout drill, in which students and teachers drop, cover and hold on for 60 seconds.
In addition, each classroom has a portable kit of earthquake supplies. In the event of an emergency, teachers can quickly grab the pack that has emergency contact information cards for the children and a first-aid kit.
Parent volunteers at Encino Elementary are in the midst of checking every one of the safety packs in the classrooms. They are also checking that the water and food supplies are up to date.
“Can you ever be totally prepared? I don’t think so,” said Koff. “There would be no place to build a school in the center of the Valley if you weren’t building it in a liquefaction [zone].
“But honestly, the school is probably the safest place for your kids to be during an earthquake because we’ve all been trained, we have the supplies here and we have the big, open yard. Those are the things that are safer than being in a store when it happens and having stuff fall on you.”
Principal David Hirsch declined an interview with Encino Patch, and Principal Elizabeth Mayorga did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"If an earthquake got started down near Palm Springs, it could go past San Bernardino, past Palmdale and even as far as the I-5," Chris Wills, a supervising geologist for the California Geological Survey, told Encino Patch. "We can start making estimates of the amount of ground shaking throughout the region, how much fault displacement there would be, landslides, liquefactions and all other effects of the earthquake. And then we can go from there to figure out how much damage and economic disruption there would be."
The research shows that even after the rupture itself passes, valleys and basins—including Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley—continue shaking.
Encino is about 35 miles away from the San Andreas Fault. But even with an epicenter hundreds of miles away, an 8.0 quake could bring strong shaking to the Valley because it sits on relatively soft sediment, Wills said.
Encino would be at risk for landslides and liquefaction, which happens when water is forced upwards through sandy soil, Wills said. The earthquake would likely cause cracking and breaking of pipes near the Los Angeles River and low-lying areas around the Sepulveda Basin, he said.
"Similar to the 1994 earthquake, but much more widespread, is potential for landslides on the south side of Encino," Wills said.
That’s right where is located—south of Ventura Boulevard in the Encino hills. The small kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school sits within a quarter of a mile from a landslide zone, according to California Watch.
Principal Mary Melvin told Encino Patch she is well-equipped and well-prepared to handle the worst-case scenario.
“When [the district] charted where our evacuation site would be, they took the issue of landslides into account,” Melvin said. “We’ve been told that our upper-yard campus is completely safe. The area was reinforced when the school was initially built. It’s not a liquefaction zone and that’s our evacuation site.”
Melvin said Lanai Road Elementary has earthquake kits with water, bedding, portable toilets and other resources stationed at the upper yard, and there is enough food stored in the cafeteria to last five days.
The school is also designated as the neighborhood resource and evacuation site for the surrounding community.
Melvin said that despite the district’s budget cuts, of possible layoffs, LAUSD has kept school safety a priority.
“The responsibility is pushed a little more on the principal than the district personnel, but we’re still required to do it all,” she said.
Lanai students participate in emergency fire drills monthly, and full-scale earthquake evacuation drills twice a year.
“I think the biggest thing for us is education," Melvin said. "Our kids do the most beautiful drills. They are so prepared and so accustomed to them that it doesn’t scare them. If the kids were nervous, then it would make the whole process a tremendous challenge.
“By now, it’s second nature. They know where to go, what to do. They get in line and they can do it in about three minutes flat. God forbid we should have to implement all of it, but we certainly have our drills and I definitely think we’re prepared.”
Some of the data used in this report was provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about Patch's with California Watch.