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Utah Schools vs. Earthquakes

A major earthquake in Utah could cause many schools to crumble.

By Jesse Fruhwirth
Posted // January 20,2010 -

In 2007 — prior to devastating earthquakes in China and Haiti — the Utah Legislature rejected a $500-million, 10-year plan to rebuild the Utah schools most vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake. Two additional rejections later, a lawmaker is requesting just a few hundred dollars per school to merely identify and prioritize those that present the greatest dangers. Despite the horrific sights of death and destruction streaming from Haiti, even that much-smaller request may be doomed to failure, given the state budget deficit.

“If we had an earthquake like Haiti, a 7.0 magnitude … the Salt Lake Valley area would lose 500 students right now. Five hundred deaths minimum, plus injuries and so forth,” says Rep. Larry Wiley, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor of House Bill 72.

Eighty-four percent of Utah students go to about 750 schools located in hazardous proximity to a fault line. Additionally, about 180,000 buildings in the greater Wasatch Front area have no earthquake resistance at all.

Several seismologists have concluded that Utah is overdue for a major earthquake along the Wasatch Fault, which extends from Malad City, Idaho, to Fayette, Utah, and has had a severe earthquake about once every 350 years. However, the last major quake occurred about 600 years ago, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

Earthquake could devastate Utah students and residents

Five hundred student deaths is just a portion of the toll of a 7.0 quake along the Wasatch Fault. State earthquake program manager Bob Carey, of the Utah Division of Homeland Security, says current models predict Utah would suffer between 2,300 and 2,900 deaths, and 8,200 to 11,700 hospitalizations.

As for the landscape, “picture an awful lot of buildings that have part of their walls missing, some buildings that are collapsed.” Virtually every historic district along the Wasatch Front could be flattened, Carey says.

Buildings constructed prior to 1975 have very little or no resistance to shaking, but they are not equally hazardous. A building’s current condition and the soils it sits on can make one school built decades ago considerably more dangerous than another built the same year, Carey says. A simple visual assessment from a structural engineer can determine which older buildings are the most vulnerable to collapse.

“We estimate the cost to be between $300 and $600 per building,” Wiley says of his current proposal, but there are more than 900 schools in Utah. “In my mind, that’s very cheap.”

At $500,000, this is the least expensive earthquake-safety bill Wiley has presented. Wiley, a building inspector for Salt Lake City, also sponsored a resolution in 2008 that called for an assessment of state infrastructure and its vulnerability to quakes. While that passed, it provided no funding for a program and did not require the school districts to do anything.

It’s already known that Utah is unprepared. For example, unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, which Carey describes as “basically brick walls with a roof on top, without any reinforcements in the walls,” are common in Utah. These are particularly vulnerable to ground shaking. Due to more stringent building codes that began to phase-out URMs in the 1930s, the entire state of California has only 25,000 of these buildings, Carey says, while Salt Lake County alone has 60,000 to 70,000. Seventy-five percent are homes. While a Wasatch Front-area quake would impact the most lives, the earthquake risk extends throughout the Intermountain seismic belt that runs roughly along Interstate 15 from Idaho to Arizona.

This month, the shaking is in Haiti, but in 2008, a damaging 6.0-magnitude earthquake shook closer to home in Wells, Nev. Almost all 350 homes in that town, located 180 miles west of Salt Lake City on Interstate 80, were damaged in the morning earthquake on Feb. 21.

“The Wells earthquake occurred the same day I presented my bill, and it passed with flying colors,” Wiley says. But the success ended abruptly. Wiley primarily blames former Rep. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, who is now the director of the Utah Division of Facilities and Construction Management.

“[Buxton] seems to think if we have a state database identifying problem buildings, then somehow the state is responsible to pay to mitigate those concerns,” Wiley says. “Buxton talked to the committee and said, ‘You guys are setting yourselves up.’” Buxton declined comment, but division spokeswoman Vicki Schoenfeld said on his behalf, “He opposed it because he felt it was an unfunded mandate.” Now that he’s director of a division that does not oversee schools, Schoenfeld says, it’s inappropriate for Buxton to comment further. “They’ll bring up the bill again, and we’ll have nothing to do with it.”

How prepared is the Salt Lake City School District?

Not all schools, however, are at risk of crumbling. Salt Lake City School District just completed a 20-year project to replace or retrofit all the district’s old buildings. A voter-approved bond for $136 million in 1999 funded much of it, but reported estimates that year said the total project would cost about $270 million.

On Jan. 4, the district opened Hillside Middle School, the last of the district’s schools to be redone. “If an earthquake should come, our buildings will be some of the strongest and may become shelters and community centers to help in the event of that big earthquake,” spokesman Jason Olsen says.

Wiley is hoping the Legislature will raid transportation funds to pay for his $500,000 bill, then bond to pay for transportation projects, put them on hold for a year or a combination of both.

“He’s got two chances: slim and none,” says the Utah Office of Education Finance Director Larry Newton, a California native who, in 2006, played an active role in supporting an earthquake-mitigation plan that called for a $250 million trust fund to help school districts upgrade. Under that plan, districts would have had to provide matching funds to receive state money. However, after it seemed to generate little support from the Legislature, Newton became discouraged.

“[Legislators] didn’t want to hear about it,” he says. “They said they believe this responsibility belongs in the school districts, not the state, so go away. … Frankly, I’ve given up.”

Though Wiley’s bill might not get funding this session, due to the struggling economy and state deficit, Newton says school districts can’t do anything, either, since they’re struggling just to keep operations going.

Wiley hasn’t given up. Each year presents a new real-world example of earthquake horrors that could have an impact on lawmakers’ minds, and Wiley hopes that will make the difference.

“We’re sitting on a time bomb here. We got pretty damned close here with the Wells jolt,” he says. “Funding is going to be a problem, I understand that, but I don’t want this to be placed on the back burner again.”


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Post a comment
Posted // March 20,2011 at 13:53

In a state that supposedly values its children, I am always amazed where Utah puts its money. The top priority is always business while education comes dead last in the nation. I guess "dead" is the key word here since our children's lives are at stake. Are your children's lives as important as giving breaks to that next big business venture and the profit you expect? Hang in there Mr. Wiley!


Posted // February 27,2010 at 10:48

We need to take whatever steps necessary to protect our children from a very possible catastrophe! Whatever the cost! We live in Earthquake territory. What is there to talk about? Who wants to see our children burried under their school building? You can't put a price on saving our childrens lifes!!!!!


Posted // January 26,2010 at 18:57

There really is no excuse not to get started on making schools safe from collapse in earthquakes. Will there ever be a justifiable excuse after an earthquake? Will the "liability" really have been avoided just because we don't talk about it or do an inventory? I think not.

As a structural engineer just knowing that some of these older school buildings haven't been tested in a seismic event is very frightening. It seems that we prioritize transportation to, from and around schools as very high. Reduced speeds, crossing guards, big yellow school buses with flashing lights and protruding stop signs. And all for that 30 minute window in which our children travel to and from school. But what do we say to prioritizing their safety for the 4 to 5 hours a day they're in school buildings? It's a liability? You bet it is.

Being sensitive to costs is of course necessary. Being blind to responsibility is not. When people understand the risk, solutions will present themselves. Saying we can't afford seismic safety for our schools is not only risky, it most probably will be deadly. If not now, when will we take this issue on.