WEST JORDAN — Being prepared for a natural disaster requires extensive planning, but inaction could have both life-threatening and legal consequences.
That was the message Wednesday as attorneys, community officials and disaster preparedness experts came together for a conference that organizers called the first of its kind.
And in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, the conversation couldn't have been more important, said Edward Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association and a task force leader for the American Bar Association.
"We've done a marvelous job as a society with warning and evacuation, evacuation preparedness, and yet we're still learning to live with incredible suffering and misery (in the aftermath)," Thomas said. "Our purpose was to bring people together to look at the law and policy and opportunities to reduce the misery and suffering of inevitable natural and man-caused events."
The conference was put together by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, the Utah State Bar, the American Bar Association and county and state emergency management and public safety offices.
As presenters discussed steps that businesses and communities can take to be more resilient following a disaster, cybersecurity issues and legal questions that may emerge, Thomas roamed the room of about 100 participants with a microphone, posing examples and asking questions.
Thomas pointed to Wednesday's developing news of eight people who died in a Florida nursing home in the midst of Hurricane Irma's devastation. The facility was equipped with generators, he noted, but its air conditioning reportedly failed.
"We're talking about people's lives when we talk about a disaster," Thomas said.
Additionally, he pointed out to the room full of lawyers that the deaths could raise questions of criminal responsibility.
Lisa Sun, an assistant professor of disaster law at BYU and a member of Envision Utah’s board of directors, emphasized city planning and Utah’s development future as a key component of mitigating potential disasters. She noted Utah’s expectations of nearly doubling its population by 2050 as a likely strain on the state’s disaster preparedness.
Sun also said land use policy and "a lot of aging and crumbling infrastructure" may pose problems in a disaster.
"California's earthquake seismic codes are stronger than ours, and most earthquake codes, including ours, focus on preventing loss of life," Sun said, noting the disparity between California, a state that sees regular earthquakes, and Utah, where fewer earthquakes have happened. As a result, Utah may be less focused on the ramifications of what comes after the initial natural disaster.
"They don't focus at all on habitability, whether you are going to be able to move into that house again," Sun said.
She said that even after surviving a major disaster like an earthquake, Utah would soon have to worry about the number of people displaced from their homes and how quickly the state could recover and rebuild.
Sun said Utah will have to decide on what degree, if any, it will demand infrastructure codes be met and how Wasatch Front officials will accomodate a large population increase in a limited area.
Thomas praised Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill for calling for the conference and beginning important conversations. Organizers hope to see the conference grow into an event for a national audience, taking place in Utah every other year, Thomas said.
The conference is scheduled to continue for half of the day Thursday.