Every time something like this happens, people along Utah’s Wasatch Front need to look around and imagine what their world would be like after a similar thing. More specifically, state lawmakers should do this.
If it’s not looking better every time they pause, they need to do better.
The Wasatch Front might not be so fortunate.
As I’ve noted before, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released a report awhile back that predicts a 7.0 quake centered along the Wasatch Front would be among the deadliest in American history, with more than 3,000 deaths, 9,300 people critically injured and 84,400 people unable to use their homes. Hundreds of thousands of people could be without potable water for 90 days or so.
The Utah Seismic Safety Commission has said we have a 43% chance of experiencing a quake of 6.75 or higher magnitude between now and 2063. Without adequate preparation, recovery could take many years.
Anyone want to guess who people would blame for not doing enough to prepare?
Given Utah’s robust economy and growth rate, this ought to give everyone pause. Hurricane Katrina taught us how a natural disaster can affect the reputation of a metropolitan area. Why not do all we can today, while surplus funds flood state coffers, to keep the damage to a minimum?
To be fair, the state isn’t sitting completely idle. The proposed budget Gov. Spencer Cox presented earlier this month calls for $50 million to be spent on seismically upgrading aqueducts that carry water to Utah’s populated areas.
That would be a good start. Fixing aqueducts was one of five recommendations from a Utah Seismic Safety Commission report issued last year.
The others were to fund a continuing study of fixing school buildings that might be vulnerable; to ensure that buildings larger than 200,000 square feet or that otherwise serve a vital purpose (hospitals, schools, police stations) undergo a rigorous structural review; that an early warning system be put in place; and that the public be made more aware that we live among roughly 140,000 structured built with unreinforced masonry — the type of thing that would crumble without too much pressure.
A school inventory has been completed (about 12% of Utah schools remain vulnerable). A long-term strategy is in place. But not much has been done on the last one on that list.
Many owners of unreinforced masonry homes are low-income, or they are landlords who rent to low-income people. Governments try not to force homeowners to do expensive upgrades, but the state could enhance existing fix-the-bricks programs to help with costs, and they could require homeowners to disclose earthquake risks to potential buyers.
Whenever I write about this, some people argue that private homeowners should bear the costs themselves. The rest of us shouldn’t have to help them.
That simply won’t get the job done. Governments offer monetary incentives for all kinds of things that are tied to society’s greater good, such as flip-your-strip programs that encourage drought-friendly landscaping in a desert where water is becoming scarce.
In a strong enough earthquake, unreinforced masonry can become a weapon that hurts, or even kills, people both inside and outside, while also leaving messes that disrupt traffic and commerce. It would affect everyone. The greatest threat to human safety during the May 18, 2020 Magna quake came from falling bricks.
We saw only a glimpse with that 5.7 event. Every whole number on the Richter scale translates to a quake 10 times as strong as the previous number. In other words, a 6.0 quake would be 10 times as strong as one measuring 5.0. Quakes double in size for every .2 increment on the scale.
So, Ferndale experienced something Tuesday morning about 6.5 times as strong as what the Salt Lake Valley felt then. But that might be several times less than what the Wasatch Front could feel in a quake that could strike at any moment.
The state has many pressing needs, not the least of which is the dwindling Great Salt Lake. Even a large surplus can be stretched thin when worthy causes come with outstretched hands.
But if the big one hits, nothing else will matter. It would be a shame not to have done all we could to prepare.