BERKELEY, CALIF. — A 19-month investigation by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reveals how the Division of the State Architect has failed routinely to fully enforce the Field Act, California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards.
The multi-part series includes a searchable and interactive map to locate individual schools and potential hazards, rich video content, an iPhone app, a coloring book on earthquake preparedness for kids, and resources for taking action. It will be published by dozens of print, broadcast, radio, online, and multimedia partners Friday, April 7 to Monday, April 10, 2011.
Among the findings presented in the three-part series:
- At least 20,000 school building projects — from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms — were completed without receiving a final safety certification required by law. A California Watch analysis determined that roughly six out of every 10 public schools in the state have at least one uncertified building project.
- The state architect’s office has allowed building inspectors hired by school districts to work on complex and expensive jobs despite complaints of incompetence. Some inspectors have failed to show up at construction sites at key moments.
- The state’s top regulators at times have appeared more concerned with caseload management than enforcing the Field Act. To clear caseloads, one state architect ordered what was dubbed “Close-O-Rama” — a mad dash to approve projects as Field Act safe. Even now, the state architect’s office has been reclassifying hundreds of projects as simply missing paperwork without visiting the schools to verify that fixes were made.
- A separate seismic inventory created nearly a decade ago shows more than 7,500 older school buildings as potentially dangerous. But restrictive rules have prevented schools from accessing a $200 million fund for seismic repairs. Only two have tapped the money. The vast majority of the buildings remain unfixed, and the money goes unused.
- As the state architect’s office relaxed its oversight, the office became closely aligned with the industry it regulates. Government officials became dues-paying members of a lobbying group for school construction firms; mingled at conferences, golf tournaments, and dinners; and briefed the lobbying group’s clients at monthly meetings.
- The California Geological Survey redrew the state’s official earthquake hazard maps decades ago amid pressure from property owners, real estate agents, and local government officials who feared property values would decline inside these seismic hot spots. As the maps shifted, some schools were located in hazard zones one day and out the next.
“This seismic safety project points out glaring weaknesses in the state’s system of oversight at a time the tragedy in Japan is still front and center,” said Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch. “And it represents one of our most ambitious, multi-platform efforts to distribute a project to reach the broadest audience possible.”
“We began working on this project almost from the day we established California Watch,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the parent organization of California Watch. “This series reveals issues that can be addressed and understood before a potential disaster. We hope it leads to reforms that will serve the public interest.”
Additional elements include:
- A searchable database of every K-12 public school in California. Readers can search the database by county, town, and school to determine proximity to fault zones or other hazards.
- myFault, a new iPhone app that uses official maps of seismic hazards in California to identify dangers your home, school, or workplace could face during an earthquake. The app also includes an earthquake preparedness checklist about how to prepare yourself and your family for an earthquake, as well as a flashlight on LED flash-enabled devices for use in emergencies.
- “Ready to Rumble,” California Watch’s coloring and activity book to help prepare kids in the event of an earthquake. Appropriate for kids ages 5 to 10, the book is available in English, Spanish, traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and Vietnamese.
- A guide to resources for readers to get involved in earthquake safety in their community.
- Videos showing the history of the Field Act, how this California Watch project came together and how regulatory failures have undercut seismic safety at schools.