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The City Journals

There’s a 50% chance of a major earthquake occurring within your lifetime—prepare now

Nov 06, 2019 04:30PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Statistical modeling shows that 13-74% of homes in the Salt Lake Valley may be destroyed in a 7.0 or more powerful earthquake. One million Utahns across the state will participate in the upcoming 2020 Great ShakeOut disaster simulation. (Salt Lake County)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

Within the past 24 hours, there has been one M1.5 or greater earthquake.

Within the past seven days, there have been six earthquakes of that same magnitude.

Within 30 days, the number rumbles to 76.

And within the past 365 days there have been 858 earthquakes meeting or besting that level on the MI or Mercalli Intensity Scale—earthquakes so strong that you can visibly see the earth move under your feet.

We are not talking about in Syria, Indonesia, Turkey or Japan.

We are not talking about areas that are somewhat close to home—like San Francisco or Los Angeles.

We are talking about home—earthquakes right here, right now, in Utah.

Girding up for ‘The Big One’ by combatting false optimism with proactive planning 

Few people openly discuss or plan for the happening of a major earthquake in the Salt Lake valley.

This is a false optimism, according to some of the people whose feet are firmly planted in the present, but whose eyes and minds scan the future, looking out for Utah with decades-away lenses.

This past spring, Envision Utah elected to focus on the looming reality of what experts say is not a possibility, but an eventuality—a massive 7.0 “Big One” earthquake here in Utah. 

The state’s Be Ready Utah, earthquake-disaster preparedness initiative, is straightforward about the situation on the home page of its website: “Utah is earthquake county.”

Be Ready Utah predicts that in a 7.0 quake along the Wasatch Front, 10,000 buildings would collapse, 2,300 people would die and 30,000 more would be injured.

And the kicker?

Be Ready Utah says there is a 50-50 chance that this Big One will strike Utah within our lifetimes.

Learning from Envision Utah’s ‘Worry Index’ and seeking to become more resilient

Ari Bruening, president and chief operating officer of the Envision Utah planning organization, points out that one of the elephants in our collective room—natural disasters—are not considered something to prioritize.

Bruening and his team of EU statisticians show that this “coin toss” matter of when the earthquake will hit Utah is not a concern. In his mind, “most of us are gambling” and that this coin-toss concern really does not best-serve Utah’s families, businesses and institutions.

At its spring breakfast in April, Envision Utah pointed out that Louisiana had a statistical model to predict the impact of Hurricane Katrina—learnings which were eschewed, or not given much credence and certainly not funded and planned for.

In Bruening’s opinion, we in Utah are in a similar place as pre-Katrina Louisiana and the infrastructure that should have, could have prevented so much death, disarray, and destruction.

“We have ground-shaking maps and liquefaction maps. We know what will happen in a major earthquake. It’s up to us to use those models to become more resilient.”

To the room of nearly 500 people seated in a ballroom at the Grand America Hotel with a chandelier-adorned ceiling, he tells them directly, “Our purpose today is to scare you. But it’s also a call to action.”

Be Ready: Utah state and county officials demonstrating how resilience must be planned and practiced

Be Ready Utah partnered with counties across the state to host the eighth annual “Great Utah ShakeOut.”

This event occurred just about one month prior to Envision Utah’s breakfast meeting.

Newly-minted Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson wore a hard hat and joined Great ShakeOut debris-management drills involving the Salt Lake County Public Works and Emergency Services departments along with Utah Departments of Transportation and Division of Emergency Management, the Army Reserves and other organizations.

The earthquake-preparedness drills involved first responders responsible for clearing roads to ensure safe travels of emergency workers as well as residents.

“With Salt Lake County sitting on a fault line, history has shown that large earthquakes can hit this area,” she said. “We want to be prepared if and when the next one strikes.”

The ultimate scenario planning: disaster resiliency

Envision Utah are experts at scenario planning. They evaluate what futures may look like and find creative ways to depict those futures to citizens.

As Bruening stood behind the podium, guests at the EU spring breakfast cracked open fortune cookies—as swiftly as earthquakes could crack open a foundation and render unusable everyday infrastructure such as streets, cellphone towers and water lines.

The messages in the fortune cookies presented attendees with scenarios residents would face in an earthquake. Being without water, power and other utilities were among the outcomes.

As was death.

While nervous smiles and chatter at first prevailed, hushes, sighs and even gasps followed as Bruening had those beset with different “fortunes” statistically representative of what would befall the Wasatch Front in the instance of The Big One take turns standing. 

The EU guest speaker, law professor and disaster-law expert Lisa Grow, advised Utahns to become familiar with the impact of where they live, remembering the inherent dangers of  UMB or unreinforced masonry buildings.

UMB buildings are buildings where load-bearing walls, non-load-bearing walls and other structures, like chimneys, are comprised of brick, cinderblock, tiles, adobe or other masonry that is not braced by reinforcing material such as the rebar that strengthens concrete.

“In Utah our primary hazard is bricks!” shouts the Utah Earthquake Safety website.

Twenty percent of Utah’s buildings are such UMB structures.

Models show that as many as 98% of deaths in a major earthquake will result from shaking-induced collapse or damage of URMs.

The good and the great news

The good news, according to Grow, is that programs like Salt Lake City’s “Fix the Bricks” program, a regional disaster mitigation award-winning program, have dollars to help residents with retrofits.

The other good—no, great—news for resident of Salt Lake County is that the total death toll from even The Big One is expected to comprise a much smaller percentage of the population than those who will be severely inconvenienced by it.

For these reasons, the state and county want residents to be cognizant that The Big One—sure as winter is for the Lannisters—is coming.

After the EU breakfast, Bruening said four people came up to him and indicated their commitment to purchase earthquake insurance.

A good thing, he thinks.

Residents need to strategize, formalize, communicate and practice family emergency plans. Residents need to purchase or make DIY earthquake-preparedness kits, including food and water storage.

Being resilient requires planning and staying in touch

In addition to the websites cited here, smart residents can follow Instant BeReady updates on Twitter.

Mark your calendar for the 2020 Be Ready Expo featuring 30-plus preparedness classes and more than 50 vendors. The event takes place March 13-14, 2020 at the Mountain America Expo Center. (There is a 20% discount for registration if tickets are purchased by Feb. 1.)

The disaster-preparedness expo will be followed by more than one million Utahns participating in the ninth-annual ShakeOut April 16, 2020. This is the state’s largest earthquake-preparedness drill and can also be registered for.