Are Schools Ready for the Big One?

As a current County Office of Education Trustee and former school principal I am very concerned about our Silicon Valley school preparedness for an earthquake disaster. It’s like the Bay Area is sitting on an explosive device equal to the size of a huge bunker- busting bomb and we do not know when it will detonate. Doesn’t it seem our schools should be ready for the inevitable detonation?

I heard this weekend on ABC’s “This Week” that there is a one-in-25 million chance to be involved in a terrorist attack on an airplane and a one-in-500,000 chance to be struck by lightening. Last Thursday, a 4.2 Richter Scale earthquake hit near Milpitas and on Saturday a 6.5 Richter Scale earthquake hit near Eureka. No terrorist attack occurred in California during this same time. Shouldn’t this seismic activity be a warning similar to what happened Christmas Day over Detroit?

On Christmas Day, a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 was averted due to a faulty explosive and the courage of passengers and flight crew. Our government has addressed the airport security failure that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a Detroit-bound plane from Amsterdam with loaded underwear and has vowed to do whatever is necessary to improve security for airplane passengers flying to America or while in American airspace. Billions of additional dollars will be spent on new systems, body scanners, explosive residue detection equipment and so forth. What is our government at the federal or state levels doing to prepare schools for the inevitable “Big One”?

According to Wired magazine in an article, titled “California Is Due for a Katrina-Style Disaster” the Hayward fault erupts with a major quake every 140 years. The last big one was Oct. 21, 1868, 142 years ago. Most scientists agree that in the next 30 years somewhere in California we will have a catastrophic earthquake, equal in disaster proportionality to Hurricane Katrina.

I vividly remember Oct. 17, 1989 at 5:04 P.M. when the ground at Anderson School in the Moreland School District felt like it was being grabbed and shaken violently by a higher power. I was in my principal’s office with the district’s psychologist discussing a professional development workshop we were putting on for teachers during the next week. The 7.1 surface-wave magnitude quake, just prior to the first pitch of the A’s vs. Giants World Series game, created tremendous problems for the Bay Area. Transportation and communication systems were thrown into chaos. Phone lines were down, freeways were flattened, and people were killed. At Anderson fortunately the children were gone, hopefully safe in their home. All but one teacher had left for home.

I could not get a hold of my wife and son due to the phone lines either being overwhelmed with calls or lines being down. Traffic, once I headed home after checking school systems, was in gridlock, no traffic lights were working, electricity was off with power lines knocked out. I thought to myself what on earth would have happened if the school was in session. The Superintendent got a hold of me by phone that evening and we cancelled school the next day.  I needed to contact all staff letting them know of the cancellation.  I came to school the next day and was stunned by the damage in the classrooms. Top heavy file cabinets were toppled and many things were in disarray. During the rest of my administrative career I vigilantly practiced our systems of preparedness with students and staff, yet I feared we were not flawlessly ready. In the ensuing months and years following the events of 10/17 school systems worked tirelessly on coming up with disaster preparedness plans. 

Plans were written and re-written with parent and emergency organization input. I am not sure we are as prepared today as we were then. I was appalled when doing research for this column to learn there is more on-line relative to earthquake preparedness and best practice from Indonesia, Japan, and Arkansas than California.

Plans included extended stay blankets for each student and staff, food storage, lighting equipment with batteries, generators, a two day supply of water, emergency radios, multiple people in a chain of command understanding and knowing where shot off valves were located for gas and water, where the large wrenches were located, and faculty and staff understood their primary legal responsibility was to their students and not their family.

Student emergency card information for all children was kept in an alphabetical binder so they can easily be taken to the school disaster command center where parents would gather to pick-up their children. We now knew with a 7.1 quake that roads e.g. Highway 17, Highway 1, Highway 880 could be out of commission and some parents might not be able to get to their children for hours or even days. We also knew phones would not work and we would have to be patient and prepared.

I worry that we may be placing too much energy on potential terrorists attacks, although very real, just not as likely as a devastating earthquake. If you are a parent of a student in a traditional public, charter, private school, or preschool I hope you take this article seriously and ask the Superintendent or principal some good questions about the schools preparedness in a major earthquake. Perhaps in some cases it is time to dust off the disaster preparedness plan as the nation has for airport security. I will request the County Board of Education hear a report about the Silicon Valley school district earthquake readiness at a future meeting this year.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. > As a current County Office of Education Trustee and former school principal I am very concerned about our Silicon Valley school preparedness for an earthquake disaster.

    OK, Joe.  So how much MORE money do you want from taxpayers for the educrat crime syndicate?

  2. The problem is far bigger than the schools.  A natural or man-made disaster is not only possible but probable in every major urban area eventually. 5 Years after a hurricane people are building away along the same unprotected coast line, and when the inevitable happens, every acts surprised and somehow the feds are responsible for all these forseable, act-of-god type of things.

    Simple things make the difference.  A first aid kit, clean water, food and means of heating it, some straps on big stuff (fridge, water heater, lcd tv, etc.).  The mormons require provisions for a year be kept on hand by every family.  While that sounds extreme, you can actually accomplish it cheaply (50 gallon can of rice, 50 gallon can of beans, etc.)

    Wouldn’t it be better to have extra to share if things break down for a week or two rather than having to line up at some school converted into a temporary shelter waiting for someone to airlift in food because all you’re canned peaches got used up the couple of days?

    I think part of citizenship and education involves being prepared for emergencies small and large.  Maybe basic first aid and preparing a family earthquake kit could be taught in school and involve the whole family.  Parents would participate if it was for a childs homework more than they would if it was just another government public service announcement.

    Clean Water, fresh food and natural gas/electricity are especially vulnerable to long term disruptions.  Think ahead a little and we don’t have to flee to Shark Tank (San Jose’s Superdome)for food, shelter and evacuation.  The likelihood of a major natural disaster hitting our region are probably low, but there’s always the unexpected (including man made disasters) and its better to have some common sense precautions (talking to spouse and children about where to meet, making sure everyone knows where the gas shut off is, etc) than to depend on public agencies to competently provide for all your needs when/if the worst happens.

  3. No! I do not think all schools are prepared. When one of the earthquakes happened, I was at a school. Although the earthquake was not destructive, the students were not asked to duck and cover. They were also not asked to do the drill. They said if we have another one we will do the drill. I understand that the school did not want to disrupt the teaching and it may cause commotion, but honestly the earthquake alone caused commotion. Some of the students were talking about how they never felt ever felt an earthquake. I think the best practice is when it actually happens. Because students will take it more seriously. What is there was a big earthquake following the small one? What do you think? Do you think that it was okay for them not to practice the drill when there was a real earthquake?

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