To repair earthquake damage and bring the 1909 Seattle Hebrew Academy building up to the modern earthquake code could cost between $2.5 and $5 million, according to school officials.
That puts an enormous burden on the owners of the nearly four-acre property, which was appraised at $5.8 million before the 6.8 magnitude quake on Feb. 28. The school does not have earthquake insurance, and government assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Act may not be forthcoming, according to Rabbi Shmuel Kay and SHA Board President Rebecca Almo.
“We have more questions than answers still,” Almo said last week. The building is more severely damaged than first thought. After opening up some walls, structural damage was uncovered in the building built to earthquake codes of the 1900s, with unreinforced masonry walls — no steel, just bricks and mortar. Almo said no earthquake preparedness improvements have been done since the building was first constructed.
“We’re all agreed that we’re not going to send our kids into an unsafe situation,” Almo said, adding that the fact that the building did not crumble substantially during the quake was probably a miracle. Since the quake, however, structural damage has increased and some walls are no longer connected to the floors. “We really don’t know how much it will cost to make it earthquake safe.”
While school officials continue to investigate and plan, the students of Seattle Hebrew Academy continue to study in borrowed classrooms at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island. Administrators have set up offices on the stage of the SHA gym, which is in a newer, safe part of the building. The Stroum Jewish Community Center Preschool has been able to stay in the newer wing as well.
“We’re exploring all possibilities for next year,” Kay said. “We’re asking people to help us if they have any suggestions.”
Repairs to the historic building are among the plans being explored, but Almo said, “If it costs $5 million more [to make it earthquake safe], it’s way beyond the economic value of the building.” She was reluctant to say the building may have to be razed, and the property sold or a new school constructed in its place, but those also seem to be among the possibilities on the table.
“I’m just so happy … in spite of all these challenges, I’m feeling very blessed,” she said, referring to the fact that the earthquake damage did not endanger the students and because of the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the community after the quake. School administrators even received a call from the previous owner of the building, offering some assistance.
Kay said an emergency capital campaign probably will be a next step for the school. “We really are dealing with a crisis, we are calling out to the community,” Almo added. “We’re confident our community will be there for us.”