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Ending a mask mandate won’t protect Utahns from an earthquake

The Legislature missed a chance to take care of long-term threats to Utahns

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A home near 1900 South and 400 East in Salt Lake City that was damaged in a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on March 18 is pictured on Thursday, March 26, 2020. So far, Utah has survived the pandemic admirably. Unemployment remains low, and tax revenues are growing. That likely wouldn’t be the case after a major earthquake.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Generals are often cautioned against fighting the last war, meaning they should focus less on what happened before and more on what is likely to happen in the future.

The same applies to emergency preparedness.

This week and next mark the one-year anniversaries of two rare events. One was the start of a pandemic that continues today. Despite how long it has disrupted life, global pandemics have been rarer than Halley’s Comet, historically. The other was a strong, 5.7-magnitude earthquake in the Salt Lake Valley that disrupted life for several days as aftershocks rumbled.

Those are rare, too, but experts say we are to expect another, bigger one within a few years. The Utah Seismic Safety Commission places a 57% chance on a 6.0 or higher temblor between now and 2063.

Utah lawmakers paid much more attention to the current pandemic than to the earthquake during the just-completed annual session. That probably was backward.

Two bills were aimed at restricting the governor’s powers during a long-term emergency. The catalyst seemed to be a visceral aversion — among some Utahns, in general, and their elected representatives — to the mask mandates that were proven necessary for reducing transmission rates. 

In the end, the governor agreed to a negotiated bill that would require legislative review of any emergency declaration lasting longer than 30 days, and he agreed to a bill that ends the statewide mask mandate on April 10 (except for groups of 50 or more) because, as he said, restriction probably won’t matter as much by then.

But the next emergency probably won’t involve masks. The most likely scenario would be a long-term drought, perhaps requiring water rationing or some other method of controlling distribution. 

Or it might involve a powerful earthquake that causes massive destruction, leading to serious disruptions in utilities, including sewer services, and possibly looting or other civil unrest. In such a persistent situation, legislative oversight might prove cumbersome.

On that score, however, lawmakers did little, if anything, to address the state’s earthquake vulnerability, which is statistically much more likely to become a problem in the next several years than another mask mandate.

By some estimates, more than 147,000 homes, schools and office structures — most along the Wasatch Front — are constructed of unreinforced masonry. These are mainly brick houses built before 1975. When a big quake hits, these could turn into weapons against anyone inside.

So far, Utah has survived the pandemic admirably. Unemployment remains low, and tax revenues are growing. That likely wouldn’t be the case after a major earthquake.

FEMA has predicted a death toll of about 3,000 from a quake of magnitude 6.75 or higher. Many more would be injured. The economic impact, to structures, roads and utilities, would be enormous.

It makes sense to address the cost of preparation now, rather than the higher cost of tragedy later. Lawmakers could have used some of their surplus funds to enhance loan programs to help people retrofit dangerous homes. Some loan programs exist, but the funds don’t stretch nearly far enough.

At the least, they could have passed laws requiring sellers to inform buyers that the house they are considering doesn’t meet seismic code, and to provide them with information on programs to fix the problem. 

Emergencies are, of course, impossible to predict with certainty. Perhaps no major earthquake will strike within the lifetime of anyone currently living. Then again, if it does, today’s political leaders would look myopic for reacting to mask mandates when they could have been preparing to fight the next big challenge.