Concerns of Quake Safety at University of Nevada Dorms

By LENITA POWERS, Reno Gazette-Journal | May 5, 2014

The more than a century-old Manzanita and Lincoln resident halls at the University of Nevada, Reno are steeped in history, but their vulnerability in the event of an earthquake is causing some concern about the students who live in them.

Michael Wixom, a member of the Nevada Board of Regents, is among those who have raised concerns about the situation in recent weeks.

“If we have a seismic event, those two are the sites that will have the most damage and the most loss of life,” Wixom said.

At a meeting a week ago in Las Vegas, he urged his fellow regents to make the seismic retrofitting of Manzanita and Lincoln halls one of the board’s top priorities next year when it seeks money from the Legislature for deferred maintenance for the Nevada System of Higher Education’s buildings on its eight campuses.

“We would be remiss in our duty and we will look back with great regret if we don’t do something to address this issue,” he said.

Wixom said he has been concerned about the safety of Manzanita and Lincoln halls for a number of years, but the Nevada Legislature typically does not allocate money to higher education to use for parking complexes or dormitories. He said it also would be difficult to get philanthropic donations to pay for the $5.2 million the Nevada Public Works Board has estimated Lincoln Hall will need for a seismic retrofit and the $9.5 million Manzanita would require.

“You can’t put your name on seismic retrofitting and so it gets pushed down on the list of (capital improvement project) priorities,” Wixom said.

UNR Marc Johnson said he is not worried about the safety of Manzanita Hall, a women-only dormitory built in 1895, or Lincoln Hall, a male-only residence hall built in 1896.

“The engineers call them unreinforced masonry construction. In other words, they have no rebar in them,” Johnson said.

“So although these buildings could suffer considerable damage in a bad earthquake, they have withstood earthquakes of up to 6.0 on the Richter scale in the past and have not sustained major damage,” he said.

Some students living in Lincoln and Manzanita seem to accept the fact that their older buildings are more susceptible to earthquakes.

“It’s all made out of brick, and as a physics major, I know that that is not the most forgiving material in an earthquake,” said Gage Shaw, a freshmen who lives in Lincoln Hall.

“Lateral movement can put force on brick and it tends to fracture,” he said. “If it fractured in this building, that would be catastrophic.”

Shaw said he’s thought about what he would do in case of an earthquake or a fire at Lincoln Hall.

“I’d just cannonball out my window, screen and all,” he said. “It’s only about five feet from the ground.”

Other students were more concerned about plans by UNR’s administration to turn the dorms into office space for faculty than they were about the potential threat from an earthquake.

“I have lived here twice and I really love it here,” said Madeline Dant, a sophomore pre-nursing major who lives in Manzanita Hall. “It’s a cute dorm, so it’s sad to think about it closing.”

Matt Eriksen, a sophomore majoring in business management, said the 118-year-old Lincoln Hall dorm he calls his temporary home has a rich history.

“The bottom line is this is a good building and it definitely brings a sense of community,” he said. “Using it for office space would take away from the history of the campus and Lincoln Hall of having always been an all-male residence.”

Johnson said the university went to the Legislature in 2004 and again in 2006 to try to get funding for seismic retrofitting of the two historic structures to no avail.

“The State Public Works Board never has considered it a priority, so we presume from that they have some faith that they are not critical hazards,” he said.

“In fact, we even asked a group of engineers if we should no longer use them for dorms,” Johnson said. “The said, ‘No, that’s not what we’re saying,’ and they told us what could be done to renovate the buildings structurally.”

But at a September meeting in 2010 of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, Gus Nunez, manager of the State Public Works Board, said he thought an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.8 or greater “would cause substantial damage” to any of UNR’s old buildings.

He said even those unreinforced masonry buildings that had been standing for more than 100 years are vulnerable.

Johnson said he would like to see Manzanita and Lincoln halls seismically retrofitted and turned into badly needed office space for faculty.

Use of the buildings for eight to 10 hours during the day would be safer than retaining them as dormitories where students might be sleeping when a disaster strikes, he said.

“We will bring the regents up to speed on what all the engineers say, and they can make that decision on these two student residence halls at their June meeting,” Johnson said.

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