First, calm down. The answers to the first two, actually posed by worried callers to people at University of Utah seismograph stations, is no.
Nothing wakes up a population quite like a couple of early morning ground-shakers. And, to be fair, parts of the Wasatch Front have had more than a few in recent days. Between Feb. 13-25, 139 small quakes shook the area around Bluffdale, the largest two registering 3.7 and 3.2 on the Richter Scale.
Those were big enough that a local television news crew felt the need to approach me on the train platform as I began my morning commute. Had I felt them? No, but my wife had, briefly. Unlike me, she doesn’t wait until the last minute to get out of bed each day.
But most of those 139 were not felt by anyone, or may have been indistinguishable from a passing truck. And no, they didn’t relieve any pressure from the main Wasatch Fault. We’re still in for the big one, some day.
If you didn’t realize it before, you’re living in earthquake country. Also, if you didn’t realize it before, these types of things happen all the time in Utah, just not in metro areas.
To put it in perspective, earthquake seismologist Mark Hale told me the quakes near Bluffdale generated about 8,800 reports. Meanwhile, a stronger 4.04 quake on Feb. 20, five miles southwest of Kanosh, generated 82. Kanosh is about 12 miles south of Fillmore. Together, those two towns have just enough population to fill the Eccles Theater.
The obvious conclusion is that human beings tend to care more about things they feel than even bigger things no one was around to feel. A tree falling in an empty forest may make noise, but who cares?
Well, we all should, of course.
Hale told me seismologists are happy about the recent small quakes because they generated a lot of serious discussion about preparing for the big one.
“We are not prepared for it,” he said. First, too many buildings are made with unreinforced masonry, which would crumble if the shaking got serious. Second, too few of us have plans for how to unite with loved ones, continue to eat and drink or take care of sanitary needs if sewage systems break.
Various state and professional organizations have combined to produce a handbook titled, “Putting down roots in earthquake country” that is designed to help people plan. (A copy can be downloaded for free at https://quake.utah.edu/new-news/putting-down-roots-in-earthquake-country.)
That book says 36,000 quakes have been reported in Utah since 1962. That also happened to be the year of the last decent sized one, a 5.5 shaker centered in Cache County. News accounts from the day describe some brick homes falling apart in the town of Richmond, as well as damage to a sugar plant north of Logan and to four buildings at Utah State University.
You have to go back to 1934 for that last truly big one — a 6.6 magnitude quake in Hansel Valley. Newspapers that day reported huge cracks in the earth and two deaths, but the area was so remote that damage was limited. In a lighthearted vein, the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “Mother Nature’s underground spring housekeeping.”
People probably wouldn’t be as lighthearted today.
Not long ago, I went to a Krystal Burger in downtown New Orleans and decided, on a lark, to ask the man bagging my food how long it had been since Hurricane Katrina. He answered quickly and precisely, as if he had been cramming for a history test.
Clearly, Katrina was a defining moment for many people in that city, partly because of how poorly prepared people and public institutions were for the storm and its aftermath. Today, you can take guided tours of the areas worst hit.
Chances are, a large quake along the Wasatch Front would be a defining moment, as well.
Just how defining, however, may hinge on whether we let the recent small quakes spur us to prepare.