Opinion: Unfortunately, Utah’s 2020 earthquake didn’t wake everyone up
This past legislative session, I sponsored HB100, a bill that would have created the Office of Earthquake Preparedness and Response. It was voted down in committee
In the early hours of March 18, 2020, I was in the shower when suddenly, mid rinse, the tiled walls around me began to shake as the lights went out.
Did a truck collide with my Magna home? Was it the heavens upset with me for having decided to run for public office? Or was it — the “big one”?
Fortunately, it was none of the above, but my hometown was in fact the epicenter of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake. Unprepared, I scrambled in the dark to find a robe and slippers. Stepping on fallen objects, my family and I made our way outside, for fear that our 1957 brick rambler would not withstand the shaking.
My nerves certainly didn’t. Never have I ever needed a blood pressure pill more than that morning.
The Magna area, the area I now represent, was particularly quaking — quite literally — by how vulnerable our houses and buildings are. While fortunately there was no loss of life, we realized in the hours, days and weeks afterward the significant extent of the economic damage. The earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks cost nearly $630 million, not counting the cost of damages to private residences — many of which had unreinforced masonry that crumbled and collapsed.
It’s not a question of if we experience another big earthquake, but when. The quake of 2020 was a warning to all of us about the real and significant danger that future large earthquakes pose to millions of people living along the Wasatch Front. According to the State Division of Emergency Management, more than 143,000 buildings have unreinforced masonry that are vulnerable the next time the earth violently shakes.
Many of those structures are schools and other community spaces that we rely on during periods of emergency.
The Utah Geological Survey’s Earthquake Working Group on Earthquake Probabilities reported recently that we have a 43% chance for multiple earthquakes of a 6.75 magnitude or greater in the next 50 years, and a greater likelihood for somewhat smaller yet still destructive earthquakes.
Last October, legislators learned that a major earthquake along the Wasatch Front could kill thousands of Utahns and leave tens of thousands homeless. Moreover, a large catastrophic earthquake could cause over $30 billion in economic damage to the state, which would take us decades to recover.
This past legislative session, I sponsored HB100, a bill that would have created the Office of Earthquake Preparedness and Response, allocating $10 million in funding within the Department of Public Safety, Division of Emergency Management. The leadership within the agency — those who understand the significant risks better than most of us — support the idea of focusing renewed public attention and directing projects towards future earthquake resilience and preparedness.
Unfortunately, the bill was voted down in committee. A number of my legislative colleagues questioned the need for such an investment for something that seems too big to fix. I suppose the “quake of 2020” didn’t wake everyone up.
When dealing with the significant loss of human life and disruption of our economy, this cannot be our response.
To solve this problem we must embrace a long-term perspective. Even if the next big earthquake is decades away, we cannot be prepared unless we start now. Overcoming the burden of retrofitting schools and public buildings, while educating private property owners of the necessity to prepare will potentially cost billions. Yet we cannot put a price tag on knowing one’s loved ones are safe and secure at home, at school or at work.
As we reinvest in our roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure, we must also keep earthquake resilience in mind. Being prepared for emergencies and disasters is a long-held Utah value — the “Utah way,” if you will.
But we can only be prepared as a state if we truly recognize the serious risks and take action — and that means putting real money and effort toward resolving the problem.
It’s time we stop stumbling in the dark, and begin planning and preparing to keep ourselves and our communities safe for when the next big earthquake happens.
Rep. Clare Collard is a Democrat who represents Magna in the Utah Legislature.