California Watch Investigates State’s Earthquake Preparedness

By: Heidi Kulicke

California Watch Investigates State's Earthquake Preparedness

In the wake of Japan’s devastating earthquake, questions of readiness for such a catastrophe on U.S. soil have sparked discussions. California has long been known as one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the U.S. — if not the world — and has a proven track record. California Watch, the largest investigative journalism team in the state, launched an investigative series titled “On Shaky Ground” in April to shed light on a topic in need of change and reform, said California Watch editorial director Mark Katches.

A 19-month project, the series unravels safety concerns for public schools on its website, CaliforniaWatch.org/Earthquakes, and with media outlets in the newspaper, TV, and radio spheres, along with scores of Patch.com sites. Partnering with many media channels took the project to a new level, Katches said. “Our goal is to reach as wide of an audience as possible.”

The project includes a searchable database and interactive map for parents and others to learn if there are any uncertified projects at a local school, an iPhone app that maps the user’s location in proximity to seismic hazards, main and sidebar stories, rich video content, a coloring book in four languages to help children with earthquake preparedness, a list of community outreach events in partnership with local chapters of the Red Cross, and contact information for earthquake concerns.

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in August 2009, and one of the issues at hand was, not surprisingly, earthquakes. “We assigned a simple earthquake anniversary story including an update on school safety to a reporter, but as he dug into the story, he found some incredible stuff reporters had long overlooked, so we kept going with it,” Katches said. Over the next year and a half, the entire staff had contributed somehow to the series.

The organization unearthed many notable findings. At least 20,000 minor and major school building projects 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. Also, 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 into the money. The vast majority of the buildings remain unfixed and the money goes unused, according to California Watch.

Since the April launch, public and government reaction has been strong. “It’s such a big project, so everyone is still absorbing it, but the results have been great so far,” Katches said. A state panel met shortly after the launch to discuss ways strings can be loosened so schools can tap into state funds needed for repairs more easily, and thousands of projects are being reviewed for safety. “It’s a big, complicated issue that won’t be solved today or tomorrow. It could take years to fix these problems, but we plan to stay on top of this story for the long haul,” Katches said.

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Published: June 3, 2011

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