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Imperial County earthquakes highlight unresolved school risks

Division of the State Architect Ceiling plaster litters Palmer Auditorium's stage in Brawley Union High School after the school was rattled by earthquakes. 

The swarm of earthquakes that rippled through Imperial County in late August has exposed more fissures in the state's system for identifying and fixing school buildings considered structurally unsound.

At Brawley Union High School, an Aug. 27 inspection of the school's auditorium by state and district engineers found cracked walls, toppled fixtures and chunks of ceiling plaster littered across floors, seats and the performance stage. The auditorium has yet to reopen. School officials estimate the building could be closed for a full year.

The damage to Palmer Auditorium occurred when 400 small earthquakes erupted from Aug. 25 to Aug. 28 in Brawley and other areas in Imperial County. There were no deaths or major injuries, but scattered power outages occurred. One hospital temporarily evacuated its patients.

State officials now acknowledge the auditorium should have been red flagged well before the quake. 

Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Division of the State Architect, said structural engineers reviewed building plans last month and determined the auditorium was a Category 2 structure – the state's riskiest designation, reserved for buildings "not likely to perform well during an earthquake." 

The state architect's office, which oversees the construction of public schools, reviewed the auditorium's building plans in response to California Watch questions about the safety of the structure and why it was missing from the state's list of school buildings deemed potentially hazardous.

Known as the AB 300 list, the database consists of public school buildings constructed before 1978 – when earthquake safe building standards were at their weakest. The state architect’s office completed the list in 2002. Since then, some school officials have criticized the AB 300 list as incomplete.

Lamoureux said he couldn’t explain why the Brawley auditorium wasn’t included. 

"The AB 300 report was prepared 10 years ago, and there is no way for us to know why this particular building was not included," Lamoureux said. "Trying to draw any conclusion would be pure speculation."

Division of the State Architect A swarm of earthquakes in August caused plaster to fall in Palmer Auditorium, which remains closed.

Palmer Auditorium at Brawley Union High was built in 1950 and hosts about 12 major plays, concerts and other performances a year. Although the auditorium was overlooked, six other structures at Brawley Union High were on the AB 300 list, including buildings completed in 1957 and 1965.

But, records show, district officials didn't pursue repairs on those structures – the school's library, band and choral room, two classrooms and industrial arts building – despite the state's warning that they were likely "not to perform well during an earthquake."

Further, state records reveal, additional work on seven Brawley Union High classrooms, four shade structures, two administration rooms and a gymnasium have failed to meet safety standards set by the Field Act, the state’s seismic safety law for schools. 

Students, teachers and staff use those structures daily, despite unapproved building plan changes, unverified safety work, and missing inspection reports and strength tests on the building brick, wall anchors and soil, documents show.

Jennifer Layaye, director of business services for the Brawley Union High School District, did not respond to questions about why the district had not pursued repairs after they were first identified in 2002.

But after news surfaced about earthquake damage in Brawley, officials at the state Office of Public School Construction, which administers state bond money for schools, contacted Brawley Union High School and Brawley Elementary School districts, emails show. The district is now working to tap $192 million in state bond funds for seismic repair work.

And Layaye said an architect is now addressing problems identified in other construction projects at the school.

A California Watch investigation last year found the state office routinely allowed children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. More than 16,000 school projects across the state lack the required certification, with roughly 42,000 students in buildings with unresolved safety issues.

Days before the earthquake swarm, a state Assembly committee killed legislation that proposed to improve school seismic oversight and bolster safety.

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