For California structural engineer Peter Yanev, Utah's cities have an Armenian flavor.
Yanev, chairman of EQE Engineering in San Francisco, has evaluated 27 cities damaged by earthquakes. In a major earthquake, Wasatch Front buildings, many of which are constructed of unreinforced masonry, could suffer as much damage as the Soviet republic did when a massive earthquake struck just after noon on Dec. 7, 1989, he believes."Utah has some disasters waiting to happen unless you people start doing something about it,' he said.
Yanev visited Salt Lake City to discuss emergency preparedness with public officials from all over Utah during the governor's annual conference. He says the entire Salt Lake area presents one of the highest earthquake hazards in the United States since the Wasatch Fault zone is one of the nation's most active seismic belts.
"In my opinion, you have a combination of more rare, less-frequent earthquakes but much poorer buildings. If you look at it from a risk perspective, you are much worse off than California.
"In California, we're strengthening thousands of buildings. There's the difference. At least we're fixing things."
In Utah, where the most heavily populated areas straddle the Wasatch Fault, the question isn't if but when, Yanev said.
And he's been pushing the preparedness issue across state lines for years, saying Utah needs to construct earthquake sophistication into its buildings and its building codes. And while the expensive base isolation system shoring up the restored City-County Building is a positive commitment to earthquake safety by public officials, much more needs to be done, he said.
"Unlike many of the large cities in California, which are similarly crossed by an active fault system, Salt Lake City continues to be built without much regard for the earthquake hazard, both in the code requirements for construction and in the zoning plans for fault traces and other inferior geologic foundations," Yanev wrote in his 1974 book, "Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country."
"Numerous residential and office buildings are located directly across the Wasatch Fault," he wrote. "In addition, because the city is situated on a deep alluvial valley at the foot of the Wasatch Range, it is especially subject to very high vibrational intensities that could literally level the many masonry buildings in the city."
Jim Tingey, earthquake program manager for the Utah Department of Public Safety, said officials are meeting now to consider the technical concerns of shoring up the state's building code. Most of Utah's one-story buildings would weather an earthquake. But in areas of the Salt Lake Valley where the soil holds more water, that could amplify the motion of an earthquake. There, even buildings constructed according to the Uniform Building Code would suffer major damage, he said.
"Once you get into a taller buiding or unusual geologic conditions, then it is our opinion anyway that we're not building sufficient to cover our risk," Tingey said. "If the worst case does happen, then we are not ready for that."
But Tingey said Utah is slowly increasing its earthquake awareness. "We're really doing much better in my opinion," he said. "The good news is if we don't have that big earthquake in the next 50 years that by the time it gets here we might be in pretty good shape.
"I think the people that are financing the buildings are asking more questions about what is this building going to do in an earthquake. I am getting more reaction from the structural engineers in the state than I ever have."
Not one school in Armenia survived the earthquake, which occurred during school hours, Yanev said. "They were all occupied with kids. You wouldn't believe the kind of disaster that is."
Yanev says Utah schools are just as vulnerable. "If people were aware of the high level of risks, they would pass a bond issue."
Besides schools, other priorities for seismic retrofitting should be emergency centers such as hospitals, fire and police stations, water and sewer treatment plants.
In Armenia, nearly 70 percent of the medical personnel were killed or severely injured as virtually all public buildings collapsed in the quake, Yanev said.