School District staff are expected to move forward this spring with massive rehabilitation plans for the county’s downtown schools most vulnerable to an earthquake. The school board has asked staff to bring forward a proposal next month to address the structural concerns and could move quickly on recommendations.

Charleston sits over a fault line that’s caused a few minor shuffles and shakes over the past few months. The region is also home to the massive, fatal Earthquake of 1886, which looms as a reminder more than a century later that hurricane-force winds aren’t the only natural disaster that pose a threat to the region. Five of the district’s campuses on the peninsula were never designed to withstand the ground shaking under them and would hold little hope of making it through.

The district has been constrained by budget concerns, but discretionary money in the building fund, increased awareness on the school board, and the potential for federal stimulus aid have reignited plans for precautionary improvements.

“The window has opened for us to proceed with speed,” says Bill Lewis, the district’s building director.

The Big Fix

A strong advocate for earthquake-safe improvements, Lewis has seen the traumatic impacts of earthquakes in California, including lives lost and the looming terror of aftershocks.

“This is not academic for me,” he says.

The campuses downtown, specifically the Rivers building, Buist Academy, Memminger Elementary, Charleston Progressive, and James Simmons Elementary, are highly vulnerable because of the soil conditions and the building structures. The peninsula is on terrible soil, Lewis says, and the schools themselves are not up to today’s seismic standards.

“They have very little sheer strength, and that’s what causes the issue,” he says.

Rivers has already received approval for intense rehabilitation to address seismic concerns. Solutions for the other campuses were included in a district-wide restructuring plan that the board approved earlier this year. It would require relocating students to empty buildings temporarily while the old buildings are extensively modified or demolished and rebuilt.

The district has up to $7 million on hand that it can spend on seismic analysis and designs, Lewis says.

Call For Baby Steps

Board member Arthur Ravenel recalls vivid stories of the 1886 earthquake handed down from his grandmother, who was 22 at the time.

“She said it sounded like all the freight trains in the world came together in a big wreck,” he says.

Ravenel supports incremental seismic upgrades established by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. A 2003 manual notes phased-in improvements could be made along with regularly scheduled maintenance.

“Such an approach, if carefully planned, engineered, and implemented, will ultimately achieve the full damage reduction benefits of a more costly and disruptive single-stage rehabilitation,” the manual reads.

This could work for other district buildings with fewer problems, but Lewis says, “The magnitude of challenges with the first 5 schools may make incremental seismic renovation impractical.”

He says staff will be in a better position to advise the board after the engineering analysis.

The district needs to be aggressive in dealing with the seismic concerns, says board Vice Chairman Gregg Meyers, noting that the idea of downtown schools vulnerable to an earthquake “creeps me out.”

Also Read: New study: Charleston overreacting to earthquake threat (May ’08)