Pretend it's January, freezing cold, and a major earthquake strikes the Salt Lake Valley, knocking out all utilities.
The temperature drops to 9 degrees and Rose Park floods. High-rise buildings in Salt Lake City, Provo and Orem sustain major damage. Some 290 deaths are reported in Salt Lake County alone, with injuries topping the 2,000 mark.How long before power and water services are restored? Will ruptured gas lines compound the catastrophe? As winter temperatures plummet, how many people will die of exposure or injury?
A grim scenario but realistic questions, emergency experts say.
To find the answers and evaluate local response, the state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management held a mock disaster Tuesday - an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale.
"The more realistic we can make it, the better an exercise it is for us," said Kim A. Williams, division spokeswoman. "No one really gets hurt and we get to test the system."
The exercise started at 9 a.m. with a simulated shift-change 24 hours after the quake. More than 300 people representing state and county agencies, business and industry, utility companies, the military and local municipalities settled in at the State Office Building to manhandle the disaster into some sort of order.
The state has coordinated two other earthquake-related simulations in the past.
This time around, the focus was largely on utilities - or the lack of - in the event of an emergency. Representatives from natural gas and fuel companies fielded calls alongside their peers coordinating water and power.
In the five hours of the mock disaster, state emergency coordinators hoped to develop some idea of how Utah will react when "the big one" hits. They'll evaluate the disaster response at a later date.
In an atmosphere of quick efficiency Tuesday, men and women clad in bright, yellow T-shirts gathered in the emergency command center early Tuesday for a debriefing of the previous 24-hours of simulated mayhem.
A situation report of the practice earthquake showed all major highways, interstates and local roads damaged. Commercial transportation is shut down. Natural gas is sporadic throughout the state and reverse sewer flow in Salt Lake County has contaminated the flooded area.
Box Elder High School appears to have sustained the worst damage, with dead and injured reported, according to the mock disaster. With an epicenter at 3900 S. 4000 West, nine Utah counties are declared both state and federal disaster areas.
The exercise allows the state to test-drive its emergency plan and iron out any bugs beforehand, Williams said.
"A lot of people refuse to accept this as a real threat," she said. "We don't know how big . . . we don't know where . . . but we do know it will happen."