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Op-ed: The clock is ticking until Utah faces a major natural disaster

A building demolished by a 7.1 earthquake sits in pile of rubble, in Jojutla, Morelos state, Mexico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Police, firefighters and ordinary Mexicans are digging frantically through the rubble of collapsed schools, homes and apartment
A building demolished by a 7.1 earthquake sits in pile of rubble, in Jojutla, Morelos state, Mexico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Police, firefighters and ordinary Mexicans are digging frantically through the rubble of collapsed schools, homes and apartment buildings, looking for survivors of Mexico's deadliest earthquake in decades as the number of confirmed fatalities climbed to 248.
Eduardo Verdugo, Associated Press

While hurricanes were devastating Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, fires were wreaking havoc in California and other global natural disasters were delivering widespread destruction, some here in Utah expressed relief to live in a place where we do not face such devastating natural hazards.

If only that were true.

Utah is one of the most hazard-prone places in the United States, particularly from seismic activity. Geologic history shows that earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or greater occur every 300-400 years on the Wasatch Fault. It has been about 350 years since an earthquake of that magnitude struck our region. As one Utah Geological Survey report noted, “Utah is due for the next big one.”

According to current estimates, a large earthquake would result in $33.2 billion in property damage; 84,400 displaced households; 9,300 life-threatening injuries; and 2,300 fatalities.

During my time as Salt Lake City mayor, I was periodically asked what kept me awake at night. I answered that a top concern is the social and economic devastation that Salt Lake City faces from a large earthquake. Like Houston, which failed to pass policies or implement measures to mitigate impacts from inevitable flooding, Utah has scores of structures that are similarly vulnerable.

In Utah, we have not done enough to prepare and protect ourselves from the inevitable catastrophic impacts of a large seismic event. A key vulnerability is the high number of unreinforced brick structures. For most of Utah’s history, brick and stone were the most common building materials. In Salt Lake City alone, 70 percent of residential buildings are comprised of unreinforced masonry. Although such construction ceased by the late 1970s — when building codes began requiring steel or wood reinforcement — a large percentage of Salt Lake’s older structures are at risk.

Through the years, government has taken some action, particularly at the local level. A priority during my tenure as mayor was to develop a stronger emergency response program, with increased personnel, improved facilities and community involvement. Schools and other places were established as emergency shelters. And efforts like “Fix the Bricks” and “S.A.F.E. Neighborhoods” engaged residents in local response preparation.

Today, we are relatively well-prepared to respond immediately to a major emergency. Systems are in place to restore services within several days, depending on the magnitude of the event. During that time, individuals and families should be prepared to take care of themselves while roads are cleared, power, gas and communications are restored and water and wastewater systems are repaired.

Still, there is more we can and should do. Our ability to protect lives and property and keep people safe requires thoughtful policymaking and persistent attention to this issue. We need stronger building codes that comply with accepted seismic standards.

In Utah, building codes are established statewide by the Legislature, and cities are not permitted to deviate from these codes. Although Utah began adopting seismic standards in the late 1970s, major home and building renovations are exempt from compliance with seismic codes. While this exemption may be financially appealing to building owners, it poses life-threatening risks to building occupants. In the case of multi-family structures like apartments and condominiums, the exemption for a building could lead to significant loss of life.

While serving as mayor, I raised the issue of eliminating this exemption — at one point making a personal plea to House Speaker Greg Hughes to take action. And despite multiple efforts by former Utah Rep. Larry Wiley to remove the exemption, adoption of seismic standards for building renovation hasn’t occurred.

At an individual level, there are many things we can do to plan for an earthquake. Consider where you might be when it strikes. Do you have a family connection plan? At home, do you have a few days of emergency supplies? Regardless of where you may be, what will you need to do to get home or evacuate to a shelter? Homeowners insurance does not include earthquake protection, but many companies offer it as a policy addendum. State and federal assistance may not be available, as those programs typically focus on public infrastructure and loan programs, and they include many limitations.

Utah policymakers should reflect, and act, on our country’s most recent natural disasters. In 2017, 15 events each caused at least $1 billion in damage. Hurricane Harvey is now priced at $190 billion. Around the world, 2017 saw record-setting hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, mudslides and landslides.

Utah has not completely escaped these disasters, but we have enjoyed another relatively quiet year. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking. We should not be fooled by our good fortune.

Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.