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Opinion: Utah must learn lessons from Hurricane Ida

Without adequate preparation, Utah could face many of the problems from a major earthquake that people in New Orleans and the Northeast face today.

Crews repair a series of downed power lines after Hurricane Ida.
Crews begin work on downed power lines after Hurricane Ida on Tuesday. The line leads to a fire station in Waggaman, La. Utahns could learn much from this storm about how to prepare for the possibility of a big earthquake.
AP

Before Ida hit, many people in New Orleans viewed Hurricane Katrina as a defining moment for their city. Some folks could tell you just how long ago it happened, where they were and what they experienced.

Given the relatively few deaths from Ida (four across Louisiana and Mississippi, as of press time), the lack of widespread crime and the ability to avoid dangerous mass-gathering places such as the SuperDome, Ida may fade from memory, while Katrina remains a defining event. That’s good, because it means the city and surrounding areas did enough after that tragic storm to prepare, at least partially, for the next one.

But Ida has cut a wide swath of destruction through much of the Northeast, as well, bringing more death as it pounded through New York City and New Jersey. And the aftermath of the storm could be just as dangerous, or more, than the storm itself.

Nothing substitutes for adequate preparation. If only Utahns would learn that lesson.

On March 18, 2020, the Salt Lake area endured a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, centered in the Magna area. This was considered a moderate quake, and damage was minimal. However, significant damage befell Cyprus High School in Magna, and West Valley City’s West Lake Junior High was declared irreparable.

While no deaths or major injuries were reported as a result of the quake, this may have been because the pandemic had forced schools to move to online learning.

If Utah suffers a major quake some day and sustains widespread damage and many casualties, it won’t be for lack of warning. Utah lawmakers, homeowners and landlords need to do more now to prepare. That is especially true when it comes to the need to shore up unreinforced brick structures.

Earlier this year, FEMA and the Utah Seismic Safety Commission released the Wasatch Front Unreinforced Masonry Risk Reduction Strategy. The executive summary of that report contained stark language.

“The Wasatch fault poses one of the most catastrophic natural threat scenarios in the United States,” it said, noting there is a 43% chance the area will suffer a 6.75 quake or better within the next 50 years, “and experts project that such an event would be among the deadliest and costliest disasters in U.S. history.”

How deadly? A 7.0 quake along the Wasatch Fault could cause an estimated 2,000 to 2,750 deaths, with up to 10,000 injuries requiring hospitalization. Area hospitals, if they were intact enough to function, would be overwhelmed, even if only some of the injured could find their way through debris and broken roads to get to them.

In addition, about 78,000 homes would be rendered uninhabitable. To compound matters, the homes most vulnerable to damage — older homes built with unreinforced masonry — tend to be occupied disproportionately by low-income and disadvantaged people who can least afford repairs and hospital bills.

The report estimated about 140,000 such structures exist along the Wasatch Front.

Even though the loss of life from Ida was minimal, the immediate aftermath offers plenty of lessons. According to Associated Press reports, hundreds of thousands of people in the New Orleans area are without electricity and may remain so for weeks. Many also lack water. Gas stations have no fuel to offer.

Without water, people can’t use toilets, which may lead to sanitation problems and the spread of disease. Without gas, they can’t power generators. Local wildlife — in this case alligators and other dangerous animals — are entering populated areas in search of food.

Utahns should learn from this and prepare, individually and collectively. State lawmakers and the governor should prioritize extra funding for programs that help homeowners retrofit unreinforced homes and buildings.

Maybe the big one won’t hit during the lifetimes of anyone living today, or maybe it will happen tomorrow. If the state isn’t ready, the cost of repairing and cleaning the aftermath would dwarf the cost of advance preparation. And the loss of life would be irreparable.

It could become the one thing people associate with Utah, rather than its natural beauties and its proud achievements.

New Orleans learned the hard way. Despite the problems it faces today, its post-Katrina work on levees and other preparations appear to have prevented greater problems. And yet many people still are without power and clean water.

We all ought to pay attention.