Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
Eugene Johnson, right, looks at the chimney collapsed by an earthquake Saturday, July 6, 2019, at his home in Trona, Calif.

Seismologists and engineers routinely pronounce the occurrence of an earthquake in a populous area — like the series of quakes that rattled the Los Angeles area over the Fourth of July weekend — as a wake-up call to those living in other places of seismic risk. It’s also routine for any period of wakefulness to shortly retreat from top of mind to back of mind.

Sure, there is pointed awareness of earthquake risk along the Wasatch Front, and there are many efforts to boost and maintain that awareness and move forward with the work necessary to protect against the effects of a large quake. And while large institutions invest in remediation, it seems that a large percentage of homeowners, as well as many small businesses, remain blocked by inertia and the comforts of complacency.

After the recent tremors in Southern California, experts took to media platforms to warn again that similar seismic disruption here is a matter of “when,” not “if.” Yet, it’s natural to be intimidated by the cost and labor involved in protecting a home against catastrophe when the earth’s sub-surface suddenly stirs.

Because of its high-risk geology, Utah may be better prepared than most areas. But still, experts warn that as many as a third of all homes in Salt Lake County could collapse in an earthquake of a magnitude 7.0 or higher. When it comes to awareness, it would be interesting to discover what percentage of homeowners have taken the time to assess the exact risks they face, or how many have acted to minimize those risks.

Of Salt Lake County’s roughly 230,000 stand-alone homes, more than 70,000 are in the specific category of unreinforced masonry — most susceptible to severe damage. It’s not particularly difficult to determine the level of risk at any individual property, or what might be done in the way of remediation. The “Fix the Bricks” program, for example, run by Salt Lake City’s Emergency Management office, is an accessible starting place.

The nightmare scenario of a large quake in Utah’s most populated area is certainly not comfortable to contemplate. Experts say more than 300,000 people would be displaced and 80% of homes damaged, with basic services and transportation systems disrupted for weeks or months. Imagine a temblor in the midst of a frigid January, and then assess the likely extent to which your safety will be challenged. Now, weigh that calculation against the time and cost of managing that risk. The result will likely show a disparity between what can and should be done, and what actually has been done.

2 comments on this story

The onus can’t entirely be on local government, which we believe has been generally successful in making information and resources available. Much has been done to retrofit schools and other public buildings, and current building codes ensure that new construction is earthquake resistant.

Hopefully the Southern California quakes have prompted more bottom-up efforts by individuals to seek information about seismic safety. Regardless, it’s important to recognize that the probability of a major earthquake striking Utah is a lurking reality that demands more than our periodic attention.