SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Maxfield recalled a saying of a geology expert who was frequently asked when there is going to be an earthquake in Utah.
The man became so tired of the question he framed this response: “It is going to happen tomorrow at 1. p.m.”
When people were startled by that answer, he assured them he was just kidding, but added, “You need to be prepared as if that were true.”
Maxfield and others in the emergency response sector say the magnitude 5.7 earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front should be the kindle that sets everyone on fire over being prepared for an even more severe earthquake or other natural disaster.
“I hope people start taking it a little more seriously, including myself,” said Maxfield, a professor in the emergency services department at Utah Valley University who has taken four trips with students to Christchurch, New Zealand, to study the aftermath of two earthquakes there.
One earthquake of 7.1 magnitude happened in September 2010, and while it caused damage, it happened in the middle of night and no lives were lost, Maxfield said. A second one of magnitude 6.3 struck at lunchtime in February of the following year, killing 185 people and destroying thousands of homes. It happened on a much more shallow fault so its impact was greater.
Link: Learn how to prepare for the next earthquake.
“There are lessons to be learned about preparedness. They (the residents) kind of had the attitude that, well it won’t happen here,” Maxfield said. “They no longer have that attitude. It was a wake-up call.”
Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, said it’s wise for Utahns to use the quake as a teaching moment for preparedness — a message that state officials have tried to hammer home each year with the annual Great Shakeout earthquake drill.
”Utah is earthquake country,” he said, noting that fault lines crisscross throughout the Salt Lake Valley and along the Wasatch Front. Each year, the state sees hundreds of miniquakes.
Though there is the “possibility” Wednesday’s earthquake could have been a foreshock, experts can’t and aren’t predicting that, Dougherty said.
”Best-case scenario, this is a reminder that earthquakes are a reality and that people should make preparedness a part of their regular life,” he said.
He urged Utahns to visit utah.gov/beready to see what they can do to protect their families and homes, including strapping down water heaters and performing a “home hazard hunt” of items that should be secured or moved to lower shelves. He also urged Utahns to keep a flashlight and shoes near their bed in case power goes out or if there’s broken glass.
Dougherty said he doesn’t like discussing “worst-case scenario,” but it’s a scenario state leaders have been preparing for and modeling for years. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake would be devastating to the Wasatch Front and the state’s entire economy.
Maxfield, a retired chief operations officer for what was then Salt Lake County Fire Department, said there are geographic similarities on the Wasatch Front to the area where the earthquake happened in New Zealand that caused the fatalities.
That area was on an alluvial plain, which is a largely flat area formed by sediments deposited by rivers. In Utah, the majority of the state’s population is crammed into an area that is the bed of the former Lake Bonneville.
When the sediments are shaken, they liquify causing the ground to lose its rigidness and to shake buildings more violently.
Maxfield said Christchurch lost its water supply and sewer system and had to remove tons of liquefaction material.
“A lot of people may have heard of the earthquakes in New Zealand, but they didn’t realize what the impacts were,” Maxfield said.
“I take the students over there to help them see and feel what earthquakes do,” he said, adding that it is intense study that involves talking to survivors, visiting impacted areas and learning about policy shifts that took place in the aftermath.
Utah residents, he warned, need to be mindful of a natural disaster that could keep them out of their home indefinitely and be prepared to have access to sufficient water supplies.
“You can’t bathe with bottled water.”
Maxfield reiterated his hope that Wednesday’s earthquake spurs people to be proactive.
“This is something that we have been telling everyone to be prepared for for a long time,” he said.