Bellevue School District Director of Security Doug James and Emergency Management Program Coordinator Ginger Bonnell show off the emergency supply cache at Sherwood Forest Elementary School on July 26, 2019.
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Bellevue School District Director of Security Doug James and Emergency Management Program Coordinator Ginger Bonnell show off the emergency supply cache at Sherwood Forest Elementary School on July 26, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

Some Seattle schools don’t have emergency food and water for an earthquake

Seattle is overdue for a major earthquake that could cause widespread devastation, and leave people stranded for days.

But Seattle Public Schools mostly leaves it to schools to stock up on the food and water they might need — and to train staff on how to respond.

Robin Schwartz had never given much thought to what earthquake supplies her children's school, Concord International Elementary, kept on hand.

Concord serves mostly low-income students, and the budget is tight. But emergency supplies seemed to her something the school district would coordinate.

"Just that we would have our basic needs met," Schwartz said.

Then she saw parents at a well-off school across town discussing earthquake supplies on Facebook: They were checking items off a lengthy preparedness list.

Schwartz asked at her school what Concord keeps on hand for a quake.

The answer?

Nothing.

Meanwhile, Schwartz read Facebook posts about other schools in Seattle where parent fundraising for emergency supplies meant they were well into the "extras."

"They were pricing brand-new sheets to use as privacy partitions for their toilets, and I was just so shocked that we don't even have the very, very life-sustaining basics at our school," Schwartz said.

(Concord has since stocked some water, she said.)

Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson said no one at the district was available for an interview.

But he said the district has supplied every school with first aid kits, and search and rescue gear, and classroom backpack kits at some point — although he said the district doesn't keep track of which school has received exactly what.

"Each school maintains an inventory of emergency supplies, including supplies designated for use in the event of an earthquake," Robinson wrote by e-mail.

Schools are expected to provide their own emergency food and water, maintain their supplies, and train their staff, Robinson said.

He said principals used to receive regular earthquake training, but that they said it felt redundant, so the district stopped requiring the training.

Robinson wrote that each school has a site emergency plan which "details which supplies are in inventory, where they’re stored, how to proceed in a variety of emergencies."

"Building leaders are routinely reminded of their site emergency plan and the need for knowing the information and having a plan, as well as having the necessary supplies," Robinson said.

But one principal told KUOW they weren't aware of emergency supplies at their school, and only learned where they were located after asking a colleague.

"No trainings were provided that I know of," said the principal by text message. The principal asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

I think there's a denial out there. DOUG JAMES, BELLEVUE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DIRECTOR OF SECURITY

Other districts in this earthquake-prone region take a more proactive approach: five districts neighboring Seattle told KUOW they oversee emergency supplies for all of their schools.

That includes Bellevue Public Schools, where Doug James, director of security, and his team maintain emergency supply caches at each school, as well as disaster kits in each classroom.

He showed off a typical supply cache at Sherwood Forest Elementary School in what could best be described as a concrete bunker. There is food and water stacked up to the ceiling: cans of water good for 30 years, and 2,400-calorie energy bars that would fuel a person for a day or two.

Carefully-labeled bins indicate the contents — like one bin each for three incident command stations to be located around the school campus. There are walkie-talkies, wheelbarrows, huge medical kits and emergency radios.

"We have search and rescue boxes," James said. "If we do have an earthquake, and staff need to go back into the building to rescue students or fellow staff members, we have everything from helmets to goggles to work gloves, duct tape, dust masks, the list goes on."

James said that centralized district oversight is critical to make sure every school has what it needs – and that staff know how to use things like crowbars and back boards.

"All that stuff’s important, but we have to train our staff on how to utilize this equipment," he said. "How to respond effectively and efficiently and safely in a critical incident."

James said he isn’t surprised that some districts, like Seattle, don’t provide supplies to each school.

"There's a denial out there," James said. "Many school districts believe that it's not going to happen. The chances of this happening are so remote. Let's put our resources elsewhere."

James said the science means districts need to be on top of things.

"We have three major faults here in the Seattle region," he said. "Our kids spent eight-plus hours at school. That's a long time in the day."

In Seattle, by contrast, schools are expected to use their discretionary budgets to purchase food, water and other earthquake supplies, Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson said.

But those purchases don't routinely happen. Instead, that task — and expense — often falls to parent volunteers, like Robin Graham, a PTA parent at Louisa Boren STEM K-8 School.

Using PTA funds, she helped equip each classroom with an emergency backpack, and stationed "heavy bags," containing bigger first aid kits and rescue supplies, in several locations throughout the school.

Graham said the process to outfit her school with emergency supplies was neither equitable nor logical.

"Seattle Public Schools should set a standard of supplies needed based on expert knowledge," Graham said in an e-mail, rather than what parents rely on now: "Google searches of 'how to survive an earthquake' and 'when the big one hits what will I need?!?'"

At Concord International Elementary School, meanwhile, parent Robin Schwartz said she recently helped her school win a grant that they’ll use to buy one set of earthquake supplies, including three days' worth of food and water.

She said that was possible because she’s a professional grant-writer.

"I mean, there’s a million barriers to [getting a grant], and it’s frankly crazy to expect parents to write a grant to pay for this kind of thing," Schwartz said.

Mike Donlin, who oversees the safety center at the state education department, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said Seattle isn’t the only district that leaves it up to schools.

“How should I put this nicely?" he said. "Like so many things around school safety, everybody knows this is best practice, but much, much, much more often than not, there is no central funding for it."

Ideally, Donlin said, the state would pay for emergency supplies for every school. In the meantime, he said, the state schools office has resources for districts and schools to figure out what they need to be prepared for an emergency.

At Concord Elementary, Robin Schwartz said spending $6,300 for several days’ worth of earthquake supplies makes her feel a bit better about her school’s chances.

But she said she worries about other school communities that can't afford that.

"It's a negligible price to pay," she said. "There's plenty of money in the city, and if nothing else it's gonna look pretty bad if there's an earthquake and all the kids who are living in poverty don't have any food or water."