Houston High School site visit held nearly 4 years after quake
HOUSTON, Alaska (KTUU) - Nearly four years after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska — rendering Houston Middle School uninhabitable for students — community and Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District leaders visited the new Houston High School building on Thursday.
The construction will not be done in time for students to begin taking classes there on Aug. 16 but the school will reopen for students at the start of the second semester in 2023.
When the building reopens in January, it will have been 49 months since students who were eighth graders at Houston Middle School will attend classes during their senior year in the new building that cost nearly $37 million to construct and furnish. According to MSBSD Chief Communication Officer Jillian Morrissey, 411 students will begin classes at Houston High School in January.
At 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2018, the 30-second quake began rattling structures across the Mat-Su and Anchorage. The 338 students within Houston Middle evacuated immediately, with some carrying their classmates to safety. In the immediate aftermath, the Houston Middle School and Houston High School students moved in together. They became Houston Jr./Sr. High School, with the addition of 15 portable classrooms behind the former Houston High School building over the ensuing winter break.
Given the blame for much of the Houston Middle School structural failures were a number of code standards from when the building was constructed in 1985. Concrete masonry unit cinderblocks were stacked in-line on top of one another instead of in a staggered fashion, causing columns to fail as the ground shook below. There was insufficient reinforcing steel within the brick walls and no structural steel footings in the building. As a result, both the academic and administrative wings of the building were condemned, with less severe damage to the gymnasium.
Over the previous four years, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly and MSBSD School Board wrestled with how to proceed, at first planning to repair the gymnasium and rebuild entirely the two severely damaged wings of the building, instead of initially opting to replace the building altogether. As the Assembly and school board planned to put the reconstruction out to bid, they anxiously awaited a determination from FEMA on their 50% rule — meaning that if greater than 50% of the cost of the building were damaged, FEMA would reimburse for the entire cost to rebuild. In 2021, FEMA issued a favorable ruling to the borough and school district.
The new building will serve as Houston High School and the previous Houston High School building will become the middle school. Ben Howard was Houston Middle School’s principal when the quake struck, and will now serve as the high school principal. Current Assistant Principal Orin Wear will be the new Houston Middle School principal.
The borough and school district broke ground on the site of the new school in July 2021. A focal point of the new building, Houston High School will feature 93,000 square feet of career and technical education space, with specific programs for construction, culinary arts, and welding, among others.
The newly built structure does not feature concrete masonry unit brick walls but is supported by structural steel.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the event was a site visit, not a ribbon-cutting.
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