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Utah is prepared, officials say

If there's one important lesson Americans can take from the devastation following Hurricane Katrina, it's that in the case of any large-scale disaster, the government cannot provide food and water for everybody.

Threats of being displaced from home, family and life's essentials have become a worry as disastrous conditions in the Gulf Coast states still unfold. While everyone from emergency preparedness officials to church leaders are encouraging the public to invest in proper personal preparedness measures, many Utahns are looking toward the principal local threat — an earthquake that could result in a death toll in the thousands.

But emergency managers say they have learned from previous disasters in the state, like the floods in southern Utah earlier this year and the 1999 tornado.

And if an earthquake, fire, flood or even a terrorist attack happens here, officials believe the state is ready.

Derek Jensen, spokesman for Utah's Department of Public Safety, said that regardless of what is happening in New Orleans, the department is braced for disaster, and its personnel train on an ongoing basis. They have particularly considered disasters that threaten Utah, such as severe weather or a high-magnitude earthquake. And, of course, any sort of terrorist scenario.

"Basically, the way we look at it is take an all-hazards approach to being prepared," he said. "Whether it's a bombing or an earthquake, the response would be similar."

Once initial cleanup is sorted out with Hurricane Katrina, Jensen said he thinks it will be a priority for all states and local governments to analyze the positives and negatives of the emergency response along the Gulf Coast and look at what can be done.

Although the hurricane didn't necessarily open Utah eyes to preparedness during a disaster, it absolutely made the public more aware, he said.

"We've noticed a lot more interest from the public." People want to know, " 'How do I prepare my family?' I've definitely noticed an increase in that. That's a message we try to promote and educate, but a lot of times people aren't paying attention to it. We have a disaster like Katrina happen and people think, 'I could have been vulnerable to this.' "

Fortunately, many Utah agencies have taken precautions — whether from a previous local disaster, in preparation for the 2002 Olympics or part of a detailed emergency plan.

And should disaster strike, officials say, the state is mostly prepared. Among the actions and concerns:

Seismic upgrades were done on numerous buildings as part of emergency planning before the 2002 Winter Olympics, and a major renovation is under way on the state Capitol. However, there are currently 65,000 masonry buildings in Salt Lake County without reinforcement, most residential buildings.

After the flooding in southern Utah earlier this year, officials say they are now better prepared to operate an "island" agency, meaning smaller command centers to help affected residents.

And after the tornado that struck Salt Lake in April 1999, the Department of Public Safety now owns a communications van that can go into danger zones and is equipped with numerous radio frequencies that allow for effective communication.

Primary Children's Medical Center is built to withstand a major earthquake; there are five generators in case of a power outage, and water lines enter the hospital in three different areas to minimize the possibility of total water loss, said hospital officials.

Every local Intermountain Health Care facility gets electricity from a different source, so if one experiences a power outage, others nearby will likely be functional.

Utah Department of Transportation officials say crews can quickly mobilize to repair roads — something perfected during the 2002 Winter Games when various departments looked at how Utah would and could respond to a disaster. During an emergency, UDOT has a list of contractors it can call for road repairs. Last month, when a truck with explosives crashed and put a 70-foot crater in U.S. 6, an outside contractor was called to do emergency repairs, and the road reopened in less than 48 hours.

I-15 bridges in Salt Lake County have been reinforced to resist a large earthquake. But outlying and older bridges are more at risk.

UTA is prepared to mobilize bus operators, an emergency plan that has been in place since 1990, UTA officials say. There are emergency water and food for UTA's 1,700 employees at the seven operation facilities.

Both UDOT and UTA have communication networks tied to state and local emergency responders. However, because TRAX is powered by electricity, it would most likely not be available initially in the case of a disaster.

Preparedness by both the government and the individual will make recovery and response "a lot smoother," Jensen said, noting that September is National Preparedness Month.

"The timing's rather ironic, but at the same time I think it's a good thing because there's a lot of information out there for people to be prepared," he said.

Emergency managers advise the public to keep an emergency supply of cash, a 72-hour kit that will provide supplies for three days and a detailed plan of where all family members can meet if a disaster strikes when they are separated. While an emergency plan is often overlooked, Jensen said it is particularly important because disasters don't just happen on weekends or evenings, when most of the family is at home.

For more information on preparing for a disaster, visit Utah's Web site at www.emergencymanagement.utah.gov or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Web site at www.ready.gov.


E-mail: astowell@desnews.com