Schools safe haven for students

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - During last week's earthquake, students at Valley schools knew what to do. They dove under their desks, waited for the teacher's cue, then lined up like soldiers and marched outside to a predesignated area.

"I'm just so proud of everybody, the staff, the kids. It was awesome," said Mount Si High School Principal George Ilgenfritz. "We just put the emergency-preparedness plan into action and went with it."

The quake hit during many schools' first lunch period, so school workers fed students snacks outside. While they waited, they sang songs with their teachers while district officials inspected schools room-by-room for damage.

"They go to every building and turn off the natural gas supply and go outside and check for building integrity," said district Superintendent Dr. Richard McCullough.

In the Snoqualmie Valley School District, some schools suffered minor cracks, but the worst damage was at the high school. Two areas of the building's older wing - one near the industrial-arts section on the building's east side, and the other in the concession stand in the lobby by the gym - suffered cracks.

"I'm pretty proud of our building, it did what it was supposed to do," Ilgenfritz said. "It looks to me right now that the building withstood the earthquake. The building's in good shape; we had some tiles and things fall, but other than that, we're OK."

Fortunately, the high school was upgraded to the latest earthquake codes in the early 1990s. The district's other schools have either been remodeled or revised to meet code. Lack of drinkable water was the biggest problem in the Snoqualmie-area schools, but McCullough and his team bought water at QFC so the children would have something to drink Thursday and Friday, as workers fixed broken water mains in the city and awaited tests that measured the water's purity. Power was lost at one time or another in most of the schools on Wednesday, but that didn't impact the students since they were outside.

Several parents picked up their children soon after the quake struck. Stephanie Huber went to retrieve her children and several neighborhood kids at North Bend Elementary and Snoqualmie Middle School, once she knew the quake was over. Huber was at her North Bend business, Cascade Office Supply, when the temblor rumbled through.

"I just thought, 'Get under a table,'" she said. "Then I prayed, 'Oh, Lord, please keep us safe, and keep our children safe.'"

When she arrived, her children were calm and ready to go.

The reason things went so smoothly, explained Snoqualmie Valley Curriculum Director Scott Poirier, is that all schools are required to have an emergency plan in place.

"Each building is different, so those evacuation procedures are different," he said. "All schools also have their own safety committee, and their purpose is to flesh out the specific details for what's relevant to their building."

Included in the plans are different roles teachers, staff, administrators and student helpers will take; the evacuation route to be used, which is different for a flood, fire or earthquake; and the procedures for checking attendance once children are outside.

The schools are also required to conduct monthly drills with different scenarios, and to go over the plan with local fire and police departments.

Part of the plan is to assume that the school could be cut off from phone and other types of communication, so each school is contained in its operations. This turned out to be true during last week's quake. Phones suffered interruptions in service, and even cell phones and radios were unusable at times.

Although it was sometimes difficult or even impossible for parents to access information, the Snoqualmie Valley School District put information on its Web site 20 minutes after the quake hit.

Many parents were immediately worried about their children at school, but Poirier said school is the best place to be during an earthquake.

"School is definitely the safest place. There are safety provisions, there's food; everything that a child needs to maintain their safety. The students know their procedures, they know their roles, they've practiced it over and over," he said.

Opstad Elementary second-grader Kelsi Gall knew the emergency plan by heart and explained that when the classroom all of a sudden "felt wobbly," she and other students ducked under their desks.

"I've never felt [an earthquake] before. My tummy's still shaking," she said about a half hour after the quake.

School officials did not immediately release students to buses. They held the children on school grounds until roads were confirmed safe for travel. High-school students with their own cars were not allowed to leave until officials gave word to do so, because the district wanted to keep them safe in case of treacherous road conditions or potentially dangerous situations at home.

Some schools had runners: teachers who, when parents arrived to pick up their child, took the child's name and retrieved the student.

"The school is not only thinking about safety during an earthquake, they are thinking of the safety of students and who has access to students," Poirier explained. "There are other safety issues beyond the earthquake issue, unfortunately, some people see tragedy as an opportunity to get to children."

Students at Carnation Elementary School and Tolt Middle School were evacuated to higher ground following the quake, said Pam Gross, who works in the district office in Carnation. After inspecting district schools, classes resumed.

Gross said students sought cover underneath their desks as the earthquake rocked the area. After it subsided, they evacuated the building and gathered on a hill east of town, near a gravel pit.

"It takes a half hour to get out there. It's a good hike," she said, adding, "The staff did an excellent job of getting those kids up there."

Carnation Elementary School Principal Jim Jordan said his school and nearby Tolt Middle School face an added challenge in the event of an earthquake: The city lies downstream of the Tolt Dam, which is operated by the Seattle Public Utilities, and in the case of a quake, the district wants to get students "off the Valley floor as soon as possible."

Kindergartners through second-graders took one route up the hill, while the older elementary students followed students from Tolt. Even though several parents were visiting the school as part of "popcorn day," and Jordan was talking in his office with a candidate for the school's principal position - Jordan is retiring at the end of the school year - he said everything went smoothly.

"The kids knew exactly what to do," he said. "They jumped underneath their desks and held on, which is what we've been teaching them for years."

These efforts were reassuring to many parents.

"As a parent, I sure feel confident to have everything OK, and that should [the earthquake] have been worse, it would have been under control," said Sue McCauley, whose second-grade daughter Katlin goes to Fall City Elementary. "They were so organized. They put their plan into action so quickly they didn't need too much extra help. All the teachers were very prepared and standing there with their first-aid kits. The kids were sitting on mats on the playground singing songs."

The McCauleys moved here eight months ago from the San Francisco area, where earthquakes are commonplace.

"You just don't think it's ever going to happen here," she said.

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