Utah’s great earthquake still looms; this is how legislators can prepare |Opinion

At 6:35 a.m. on August 30, 1962, an earthquake shook the city of Logan. It was one of those life-changing events—something the rest of us would be wise to remember.

Witnesses said it started as a rolling rumble that quickly dissolved into the sound of breaking glass and falling rocks.

Official sources differ on how powerful it was. The United States Geological Survey marked it as 5.9 on the Richter scale. The University of Utah’s Intermountain Seismic Belt Historical Earthquake Project calls it a 5.7, similar to the one that hit the Salt Lake Valley in March 2020.

But that’s the only thing the two have in common.

On that morning in 1962, when the walls came apart and the roof collapsed, a small crowd was having breakfast at the Model Billiards counter on West Center Street in Logan. Fortunately no one was injured.

The roof collapsed over the chapel of the Logan Fourth Ward building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, according to a Deseret News report at the time. Walls collapsed all over the city. On Federal Avenue, the Smith Printing Company lost 40 feet of its west-facing wall.

Windows large and small shattered, leaving debris in the city. Cans, broken glass and food items littered the aisles of supermarkets. At the Logan Temple, plaster fell from the ceilings and a weathercock and lightning rod collapsed.

Nearby Richmond suffered the most damage. The LDS Benson Ring Tabernacle, a majestic 1904 brick building, was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished later.

Remarkably, the only reported injury was a girl in Richmond who suffered a cut to her foot from a broken bottle.

In contrast, the Salt Lake earthquake 48 years later caused little damage except to one type of building — those built with unreinforced masonry.

Judging by the news reports in 1962, that is the common thread. Crumbling bricks, walls falling apart and falling, resulting in collapsed roofs – these are the telltale signs of buildings held together by nothing but bricks and mortar, with roofs held in place by nothing more than gravity .

A new report from the Utah Seismic Safety Commission reiterates a long-held estimate that 140,000 such unreinforced buildings exist along the Wasatch Front, ranging from single-family homes to apartments and office buildings. They were built before the strict building regulations of 1976. Experts say most injuries and deaths, especially in an earthquake much larger than the one in 2020, would occur in and around these buildings.

The report provides five recommendations for ways the Utah legislature can now prepare for the big one this year, mitigating the overall damage. These are intended to improve the four major aqueducts that carry water to more than 2 million Utah residents; to fund an ongoing study into repairing school buildings that may be vulnerable; ensure that buildings larger than 200,000 square feet or that otherwise serve a vital purpose (hospitals, schools, police stations) undergo a rigorous structural overhaul; that an early warning system be introduced; and that the public is made more aware of those 140,000 vulnerable buildings.

Frankly, the latter is not enough. With all the extra money that legislators have this year, they should fund programs that help homeowners solve their problems. Some cities already have “Fix the bricks” programs, but they are often underfunded. Unfortunately, many people living in these structures are low on resources. Many of them are tenants.

So the other thing that legislators should do is pass a law requiring sellers to inform buyers that a home is unfortified and vulnerable to an earthquake. This may come with requirements to notify potential buyers of state programs to help them resolve the issue.

I have heard that brokers are against such a requirement. That’s natural. But the requirement would put pressure on property owners to fix the problem.

Simple awareness is not enough.

This is one of those problems that make everyone a gambler, bet they won’t have to deal with it in their lifetime. The report says that the probability of the Wasatch Front experiencing a magnitude 6.75 or greater earthquake in the next 50 years is actually a coin flip. Do you feel happy?

If it happens, such an earthquake could change this place forever, ruining our economy and way of life for many years to come. FEMA officials predict it could be one of the deadliest natural disasters in US history, akin to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

In Logan, the damage from that relatively moderate earthquake of 1962 has forever imbedded itself in memory banks. In 2012, the Logan Herald Journal reported on a 50th anniversary commemoration event.

Former Richmond Mayor F. Richard Bagley told the paper that the earthquake changed his city forever, wiping out two churches and many homes. “It just changed the way we looked,” he said.

Utah’s leaders must do everything possible now to ensure that a Wasatch front much more populated than Logan was in 1962 is changed as little as possible when a major front strikes.

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