Russian Roulette | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Russian Roulette 

On another game of chance we play in Utah: death by earthquake.

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In a recent Twitter post, political poll aggregator and FiveThirtyEight.com's founder Nate Silver observed that while we shouldn't rule out a Donald Trump win in November, his chance of success is less than it would be if he were playing the lethal game of chance, Russian roulette. That is to say, it has become statistically less likely for him to become president than it would be if he loaded a single round in a six shooter, spun the barrel randomly and successfully shot himself in the head. The odds of Mr. Trump winning the presidency, according to Mr. Silver, are 1-9. The chance of anyone shooting oneself, should one take up the challenge, would be 1-6.

While playing Russian roulette has never been my kind of fun, the political analogy got me to thinking of another lethal game of chance we play here in Utah, death by earthquake.

According to many emergency management professionals, there is a 1-4 chance of our experiencing a killer earthquake disaster along the Wasatch, perhaps during the next 35 years. Utah has done a lot to prepare for that earthquake. State and local governments, and nonprofits like the Red Cross, devote millions of dollars each year to train and equip many of us so that we can respond expeditiously and mitigate deadly consequences. Yet, for all the money and time we invest, we are woefully lacking in taking steps necessary to prevent earthquake-related deaths in the first place.

Envision Utah, the public-private collaborative effort that spent two years polling citizens, government officials and businesses to determine how Utah wants to look in 2050, has published a summary of our best emergency management wisdom. Its conclusion: We have 165,000 unreinforced masonry buildings which will suffer significant damage, killing approximately 7,700 adults and children in roof and wall collapses.

So, while Trump is spending tens of millions of his and his supporters' dollars for only a 1-9 chance at becoming president, and while people who are crazy enough to take up the Russian roulette challenge have a 1-6 chance of self-destructing, Utahns gamble on a 1-4 chance of seeing thousands of family members and fellow citizens perish in this natural disaster.

In its vision booklet on disaster resilience, Envision Utah has summarized the cost of retrofitting at between $5,000 and $10,000 per home. This does not eliminate damage from an earthquake, mind you, but helps save about 5,400 of the 7,700 lives that are now projected to be lost. In addition, since the number of new buildings will double by 2050, modest legislative changes to strengthen building codes, could reduce deaths from new buildings by 65 percent.

To be fair, as a society, we are starting to do some important things. There is a starter project within Salt Lake City to fund the rehab of approximately 5,000 unreinforced brick buildings right now. But that's only 5,000 out of 165,000 structures that need such work. What about the rest? Could we get Utah Legislature to cough up a minimum of $800 million? Not likely.

So, here's my Plan B: What if we put together a totally free guide for home dwellers to buy the materials and do it themselves? Wouldn't you be willing to invest some time, sweat and money to ensure your safety?

For the past several weeks, I have been talking with elected officials, former elected officials, preparedness managers, the Utah Department of Emergency Management, FEMA people and building contractors, to put together a simple step-by-step guide that will enable you to do the most critical repairs to save you and your loved ones when that big shake wakes us all out of a sound slumber at, say, 2 a.m.

We haven't finished that guide yet. But smart folks are really working on it, and we will have this ready for you in far less time than you think. Did I mention that the guide will be free and it will not require legislative action or tax dollars?

In the meantime, if all this risky earthquake talk has you nervous, there are things you can do on your own, even before a formal guide. Look up the Utah Seismic Safety Commission at USSC.Utah.gov. Also, Google "retrofit brick homes for earthquake." It will take a bit of work, but you can gather enough info to buy what you need and/or be able to talk intelligently to a professional remediation contractor.

Now, let's get back to Trump's current odds of becoming president and other games of chance. In Clint Eastwood's portrayal of detective Harry Callahan in the 1971 movie Dirty Harry, perhaps the most celebrated quote of all time is Harry's to a suspect he has just chased down who is considering reaching for a gun lying on the ground before him. Harry voices what he thinks are the perp's thoughts and says:

"'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'"

Well, with the 1-4 stated chance of a killer earthquake destroying you in your home between now and 2050, do you feel lucky enough to play those odds? Like I said, I don't play Russian roulette. And I don't think you should either.


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Stan Rosenzweig

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