Opinion: Odds of the Wasatch Front experiencing a massive earthquake are a coin toss. Do you feel lucky?
Experts say the chances of a major earthquake along the Wasatch Front within 50 years is a coin toss. Here’s what lawmakers can do today to prepare
At 6:35 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1962, an earthquake rocked the city of Logan hard. It was one of those events that changed lives — something the rest of us would be wise to remember.
Witnesses said it started as a rolling rumble that quickly dissolved into the sound of breaking glass and falling bricks.
Official sources differ as to how powerful it was. The United States Geological Survey marked it as 5.9 on the Richter scale. The University of Utah’s Intermountain Seismic Belt Historical Earthquake Project calls it a 5.7, similar to the one that hit the Salt Lake Valley in March 2020.
But that’s about the only thing the two have in common.
A small breakfast crowd was seated at the counter at Model Billiards on West Center Street in Logan on that morning in 1962 when the walls separated and roof caved in. Luckily, no one was hurt.
The roof collapsed over the chapel at the Logan Fourth Ward building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, according to a Deseret News account at the time. Walls collapsed all over the city. On Federal Avenue, the Smith Printing Company lost 40 feet of its west-facing wall.
Windows large and small shattered and left debris across the city. Cans, broken glass and food items littered the aisles at grocery stores. At the Logan Temple, plaster fell from ceilings and a weather cock and lightning rod collapsed.
Nearby Richmond suffered the worst damage. The LDS Benson Stake Tabernacle, a majestic brick building built in 1904, was so badly hurt it later had to be razed.
Remarkably, the only reported injury was to a girl in Richmond, who suffered a cut on her foot from a broken bottle.
By contrast, the Salt Lake quake 48 years later caused little damage, except to a certain type of building — those constructed with unreinforced masonry.
Judging by the news reports in 1962, that’s the one common thread. Crumbling bricks, walls that separate and fall, resulting in collapsed roofs — these are the telltale signs of buildings held together by nothing but bricks and mortar, with roofs held in place by nothing more than gravity.
A new report by the Utah Seismic Safety Commission repeats a long-held estimate that 140,000 such unreinforced buildings exist along the Wasatch Front, ranging from single-family homes to apartments and office buildings. They were built before the stringent building codes of 1976. Experts say most injuries and deaths, especially in a quake much larger than the one in 2020, would occur in and around these buildings.
The report provides five recommendations for ways this year’s Utah Legislature can prepare now for the big one, reducing the overall damage. These are to improve the four main aqueducts that carry water to more than 2 million Utah residents; to fund a continuing study of fixing school buildings that might be vulnerable; to ensure that buildings larger than 200,000 square feet or that otherwise serve a vital purpose (hospitals, schools, police stations) undergo a rigorous structural review; that an early warning system be put in place; and that the public be made more aware of those 140,000 vulnerable buildings.
Frankly, that last one isn’t enough. With all the extra money lawmakers have this year, they should fund programs that help homeowners fix their problems. Some cities already have “Fix the bricks” programs in place, but these tend to be underfunded. Unfortunately, many people who live in these structures have meager means. Many of them are renters.
So the other thing lawmakers should do is pass a law requiring sellers to inform buyers that a home is unreinforced and vulnerable to an earthquake. This could be coupled with requirements to let potential buyers know of state programs to help them fix the problem.
I’ve heard that realtors oppose such a requirement. That’s natural. But the requirement would begin to apply pressure on property owners to fix the problem.
Simple awareness isn’t enough.
This is one of those problems that makes everyone a gambler, betting they won’t have to face it in their lifetimes. The report says the odds of the Wasatch Front having a 6.75 magnitude quake or bigger over the next 50 years is basically a coin toss. Do you feel lucky?
If it happens, such a quake could change this place forever, ruining our economy and way of life for many years. FEMA officials predict it could be among the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, rivaling the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In Logan, the damage from that relatively moderate 1962 quake has embedded itself in memory banks forever. In 2012, the Logan Herald Journal reported on a 50th anniversary commemoration event.
Former Richmond Mayor F. Richard Bagley told the paper the quake forever changed his town, wiping out two churches and many homes. “It just changed the way we looked,” he said.
Utah’s leaders should do all they can now to make sure a Wasatch Front that is far more populous than Logan in 1962 will be altered as little as possible if a big one hits.