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Why port-a-potties should remind us to prepare for the next earthquake

Debris from the entrance of Silver Crest Elementary School in Herriman is pictured after a after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna hit early on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Debris from the entrance of Silver Crest Elementary School in Herriman is pictured after a after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna hit early on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine rows of port-a-potties in your neighborhood. Now, imagine having to run out to one in your nightgown or pajamas in the middle of the night when the need arises, maybe with your children in tow and perhaps needing to wait behind other neighbors — for months on end.

If people in the Salt Lake area wonder what the difference is between the 5.7 magnitude earthquake they lived through last March and the 7.0 “big one” that has been predicted, they need to keep that image in mind.

Oh, and one other thing. Remember the number 140,000. That’s an estimate of how many structures — homes and businesses — are built of unreinforced masonry in the Salt Lake Valley. If Mother Nature strikes with the force of a 7.0 quake, she will use these as weapons against anyone inside.

Do you remember the earthquake we had in March? In a normal year, that would be a silly question. But 2020 has been so filled with disasters and unrest that the impact of that quake may have been shoved to the back of our memory banks.

The bigger question is whether state lawmakers and whoever is elected governor in November remember it, and whether they will begin the process of really preparing for the big one. If so, they could reduce what FEMA predicts could be a death toll of 3,000, which would rival the San Francisco quake of 1906.

The 5.7 we had in March didn’t change those predictions. Experts still say we have a 43% chance of experiencing a quake of magnitude 6.75 or higher within the next 50 years. Twenty-two quakes of about 7.0 have hit the Wasatch Front over the last 6,000 years, occurring every 300 years or so, on average. The last one was, well, more than 300 years ago.

I got these figures from Envision Utah, a collaborative nonprofit that, according to its website, looks to find “bottom-up decision-making.” Three of its leaders met this week with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards to talk about an effort underway to improve our “disaster resilience.”

This is not the sort of thing humans enjoy talking about. If you’re a politician, the tendency may be to think the odds are good. If you’re my age or older, you might agree. If I’m still here in 50 years, it will be time to notify the Guinness world record people. Besides, there are days when weather forecasts predict a 40% or more chance of rain and the sun keeps shining, right?

But if a big quake does hit in the next 10 years or so, a lot of people will be asking why politicians today didn’t do more, especially given the wake-up call last March.

One of the answers they might give is money. Our guests from Envision Utah didn’t have firm numbers on costs, except to say it may be upward of $10,000 to retrofit an unreinforced home.

But lawmakers could take a few slow steps. They could set up a fund that pays part of the costs for qualified homeowners to shore up their bricks. Local cities could take some steps, such as requiring a retrofit whenever someone seeks a permit for an addition or a remodel. They could prohibit construction in particularly vulnerable areas.

And they could begin shoring up infrastructure, particularly water and sewage pipes, which brings me back to those potties in neighborhoods.

Experience shows electricity can be restored within one to three months of a major quake, water service takes much longer, and sewer service takes two to three times longer than that.

A decade ago, two large earthquakes, one measuring 7.1 and the next 6.3, struck Christchurch, New Zealand, within a few months. The last quake struck in February 2011. Press reports from the time reported that about 30 portaloos, as they were called, were still in use in November 2012, 21 months later. That was down from about 3,000 at the peak, which lasted a while.

That’s a lot of inconvenience; a lot of running down the street, either for yourself or with little children, that might be minimized with a bit of expense now.

If we have learned anything from a year of pandemic, forest fires and unrest, it should be that a bit of planning today can save a lot of expense and suffering later.