Study: 77 out of 128 Utah schools surveyed wouldn't survive major earthquake

Published: Saturday, Jan. 22 2011 11:51 p.m. MST

Barry Welliver, consulting structural engineer, looks over paperwork at his Draper office on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011. Welliver worked on a study with the Utah Seismic Safety Commission that concluded that 77 of 128 schools reviewed are not meeting federal earthquake standards.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If "the big one" hits Utah, a new study finds the majority of Utah schools surveyed are not built to withstand the effects of a major quake.

After surveying nearly 130 Utah schools, a new report by the Utah Seismic Safety Commission found more than half of schools evaluated do not meet federal standards for seismic safety.

Structural engineers sampled 128 high schools, junior high schools, elementary schools and charter schools using a method known as "rapid visual screening" or "sidewalk surveys." The quick assessments allowed engineers to identify those buildings most vulnerable to earthquakes.

The study found 77 schools — 60 percent of the 128 reviewed — did not meet seismic standards and need further evaluation to see if they would withstand vigorous shaking.  Some may need to be retrofitted or rebuilt altogether. 

Of the 77 schools, 46 have a 10 percent chance of collapsing and 10 are almost certain to collapse.

The study did not identify the individual schools sampled.

The Utah State Office of Education said about 58-percent of schools were built before 1975.

“Anything before that wasn't really constructed with seismic safety in mind," said Barry Welliver, a structural engineer who organized the study.

Many of the older buildings were constructed using a technique called unreinforced masonry. The buildings are comprised of multiple layers of brick laced together without steel reinforcements.

“Unfortunately, we as structural engineers can say almost certainly those kinds of buildings pose a significant risk to their occupants in a major earthquake," said Welliver.

The pilot survey was designed to push for a more comprehensive look at all of Utah’s schools. “Every child deserves to be in a safe place,” said Welliver.

The commission hopes the findings will prompt the Legislature, which convenes Monday, to authorize a $500,000 project to screen all Utah schools.

Welliver said retrofitted or rebuilding schools may seem overwhelming.

“It's a stick-your-head-in-the-sand situation, where you say nobody can afford to do all of this," Welliver said. "It’s not a single-stage rehabilitation, it’s something that is integrated into, for instance, roofs being replaced on the schools, classrooms being remodeled, all of those opportunities are great to get in and do some structural strengthening.”

E-mail: aforester@desnews.com

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