The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to put a stranglehold on the daily lives of Utahns in 2020 when Mother Nature decided to pile it on and struck Salt Lake County with a 5.7 magnitude earthquake — the strongest recorded in the state in 28 years.

Its epicenter was just a few miles from the west-side community of Magna, where fascia from historic buildings began to litter Main Street due to the shifting ground.

The pandemic, and its attendant lockdown, is something Greg Schulz said that for one day, on that one early morning, he’s grateful for.

“To this day I will thank COVID for having us on lockdown because if not for COVID, we would have had kids out walking on Main Street when that earthquake hit,” said Schulz, Magna’s municipal administrator.

It was all hands on deck for the 2020 earthquake

“If there is one silver lining to this virus, we could have had seriously injured a lot of kids when the damage occurred with that crumbling debris. I will take good luck where I can get it.”

Greg Schulz, municipal administrator of the Magna Metro Township, points out repairs on the Panama Building on Magna’s Main Street on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. The building, as well as many others on the street, were damaged in a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on March 18, 2020. Most of the buildings have since been repaired. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
5.7 magnitude earthquake hits near Magna, shakes entire Wasatch Front
Jolted awake: Magna declares emergency in wake of earthquake

Across the valley, Lisa Bagley was just beginning to roust herself from bed when a rumbling vibration enveloped her Millcreek home.

She and her husband looked at each other in wonder.

“I was like, ‘This is not a snowplow truck,’” she told him. “This is an earthquake.”

Bagley soon received a text to respond to the Salt Lake County Emergency Coordination Center because of her role as chairman of Region 2 of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD.

The organization is a coalition of multiple nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, Team Rubicon, Habitat for Humanity and churches hyperfocused on community relief and assistance in times of crisis — from the pandemic that continues to rage to the earthquake that struck at 7:09 on a Wednesday morning last year.

She packed a bag and would spend the next three days acting much like a conductor, coordinating response to government requests for assistance.

“The earthquake added onto what we were already trying to do with COVID,” she said, describing what at the time felt like an overwhelming challenge.

Lisa Bagley, a member of the Millcreek Emergency Resilience Committee and volunteer member of the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, poses for photos at her home in Millcreek on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Crisis upon crisis

The state of Utah, Salt Lake County, multiple cities, first responders and numerous volunteer organizations suddenly found themselves on the front lines of another crisis.

Broken gas lines, evacuations, power outages, a chlorine gas plume, and in all sense of community, neighbor checking in on neighbor.

March 18, 2020, became a day of that history-defining question: Where were you when the Magna quake happened?

There were no serious injuries or fatalities, but a year later, property damage is still being tallied. Preliminary numbers show there could be $62 million in building-related damage, contributing to $629 million in total economic loss. This number does not include damage to public infrastructure, which would possibly be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at some point.

It was a big financial hit for communities in what’s been described as a moderate earthquake that as of Feb. 28 has left a trail of 2,590 aftershocks recorded by the University of Utah Seismograph Stations.

For years, emergency managers and disaster relief organizations have been preaching and pleading for residents to be prepared for the “big one” in aggressive education campaigns that include the Great Utah ShakeOut, but last year’s earthquake — they hope — delivered the lesson more effectively than millions of dollars in messaging could ever achieve.

A firefighter arrives on scene where debris fell off a building at 400 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna hit early on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Experts say Utah earthquake is a call for preparedness

“What it comes down to, when the rubber hits the road, it is all about community and individual resiliency. Everybody has skin in the game. It is no one group,” Bagley said.

Could ‘Big One’ in Utah be costliest natural disaster in U.S. history?

She pointed to geologic studies that predict that in the next 50 years, there is 43% chance of a 6.75 magnitude or greater earthquake hitting the Wasatch Front.

Modeling by FEMA projects more than 3,000 deaths, 9,300 people critically injured and 84,400 displaced households if a 7.0 magnitude earthquake were to hit Salt Lake County. The data was distributed by Envision Utah.

Bagley said those numbers should be sobering in a scenario that reminds us all to be better prepared.

“No one is coming to save you,” she said, reiterating: “No one is coming to save you in the first five days, so make a plan, build a kit, take a class and get informed. Ask yourself what you could be doing now. It is really beyond the short term what we be should doing.”

Those are take home lessons even for people whose profession is emergency management.

“It’s never too late to be prepared until it is,” said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

Runaway rumor

Dougherty said his big takeaway in the aftermath of the Magna earthquake was the enormous amount of energy he and others spent tamping rumors that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake was sure to follow in another 30 minutes.

The rumor was getting spread around by credible sources in all variety of church faiths.

“It was nuts,” he said, stressing that no one can predict an earthquake, and Utah actually does not have a fault capable of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.

“We knew we had truth on our side, we had been communicating truth immediately. ... We did everything by the textbook of crisis messaging: communicate early, simple messages and repeat them. We did that all day long. The rumors lived on; it was more viral than us.”

It’s like the words penned by Irish author Jonathan Swift: Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after it.

Dougherty said that experience is what still leaves him with his earthquake jitters.

“I have gone to bed every night since I started working in emergency management with the belief that the earthquake could happen tomorrow,” he said. “I am always ready to start getting information out to the public. While the shaking was stopping, I already had my phone out and was writing my first tweet from emergency management. That earthquake is definitely what sustained the belief that we had to be fast. The other was dealing with the power of a rumor that even if you knew better, it sounded really plausible.”

The sudden intensity of an earthquake is so surreal, it takes the brain a few second to catch up with the reality of what is happening.

The Division of Emergency Management reached out on social media to tap public opinion six months later, asking residents what they initially thought caused the shaking. Dougherty’s blog pointed to surprising results that blamed dump trucks, jets and even husbands as culprits. Dougherty said those first few seconds of “processing” the experience can be critical in the event of a disaster, so the quicker reality sets in, the better.

Nearly a year after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake rattled the Wasatch Front, bricks are stacked near a damaged wall on the roof of the Eagles Building, home of Caffé Molise and BTG Wine Bar, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Historic pain

After the rumbling — which some described like a powerful and loud locomotive that shook the ground with tremendous force — had stopped, 145 historic buildings were damaged, mostly in the Salt Lake Valley.

The damage extended to the Rio Grande Depot, constructed in 1910 as a train station and viewed as one of Utah’s most beautifully and significant architectural buildings that is home to the Utah Division of Heritage and Arts and state history offices, housing employees like Chris Merritt, who serves as the Utah’s state historic preservation officer.

Earthquake damage estimates hit $48.5 million, Salt Lake County officials say

At the time of the earthquake, Merritt said the building was largely uninhabited due to COVID-19, and it remains so to this day because an extensive structural review is underway to determine the best way to “earthquake proof” the building so it isn’t so vulnerable in the future.

There are about 147,000 of these unreinforced masonry structures across the state that include homes, commercial businesses, schools and more, according to officials.

Because they are just stone on top of stone without rebar, when an earthquake hits they simply collapse.

Merritt said the moderate earthquake of 2020 drove home the urgent need to be aggressive in retrofitting these structures, not only on government’s part but at a personal level.

“We need to take seriously the preparation for the next earthquake. As much as the state and our partners have been talking about the earthquake, nothing had been done to protect these buildings that are part of the fabric of our community,” Merritt said. “We need to be using the tools that we have now to get these buildings stabilized and retrofitted.”

Salt Lake City has a “Fix the Bricks” program that taps into federal grants to help owners of these unreinforced masonry structures finance the cost of a retrofit. The federal money, under certain circumstances, can be used to pay for up to 75% of the makeover. But the waiting list is incredibly long.

Utah has a significant amount of these structures — mostly homes — because it was slow to put building codes in place to halt their construction.

Dougherty said California banned them at the turn of the 20th century, but many of these brick-on-brick homes continued to be built well into the 1970s in Utah.

He advised homeowners to do a bit of investigating of their home to probe their level of vulnerability, and any sort of reroofing project should give them a chance to “peek under the hood” to determine how securely walls have been attached to the home’s frame.

While it sounds incredulous, he said there have been many instances in which homes were simply slapped together without the proper engineering practices followed.

The Western Estates mobile home community in West Valley City is pictured on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Many mobile homes were damaged in the 2020 earthquake. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Duct tape and scissors

West Valley City Assistant City Manager Nicole Cottle said the quake knocked 47 manufactured homes off their foundations or further compromised them, rendering them unsafe to permanently inhabit.

The city was already in beast mode responding to the pandemic and the earthquake heightened its emergency disaster response.

Dominion Energy shut off the natural gas amid sewer, electrical lines and water lines that were damaged.

She said city officials were on site within 30 minutes and gas service was returned by the end of the day where possible.

The 47 severely damaged homes were part of complex that includes 119 homes and it was the only area in West Valley City were the earthquake inflicted damage, Cottle said.

“If we had had any more damage in the city we would have not been able to rally so quickly and get quite so much support,” she said. “What became very clear to us was how much effort and heavy lifting goes into a disaster like this, and how in something bigger that happens, people will have to be making the repairs themselves and getting services themselves.”

West Valley City had inspectors on site 24/7, and Cottle said the city quickly learned the need to have Spanish-speaking lines for victims of a disaster.

Inspectors used a bright color-coded system to help residents understand the status of how the emergency response was playing out.

“We went through several rolls of duct tape and needed more scissors; we learned you can never have too much of that.”

Homeless overnight

Ed Blake, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity for Salt Lake Valley, said he learned from a friend of the terrible circumstances that befell a pocket of West Valley residents.

“There were essentially 47 families who were homeless overnight, who couldn’t stay with friends and family because of the pandemic, which had already put a dark cloud over them.”

An immediate fundraising effort among the city, county and its community partners raised around $300,000 to $400,000, and Blake’s crew swept in to help put the toppled manufactured homes on structural supports and ensure that they were strapped properly against a future earthquake.

Blake’s team had already shifted from using their fleet of box trucks from delivering construction materials to deliver food to pantries and other food-challenged organizations due to the pandemic.

When the earthquake struck, the organization again changed direction and opened its materials store on 500 West in Salt Lake City — which had been closed due to COVID-19 — to help residents who needed building materials to make repairs.

“We ended up giving out materials for free,” he said.

Blake said his organization’s work at the West Valley manufactured home park was a “bit outside our lane. This is not our mission frankly.”

But he said the Magna earthquake drove home the vulnerability of people that can be exposed in just a matter of moments, reinforcing a message he includes in a class he teaches about what would happen if a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck.

It is the same message Bagley preaches.

“If we have the big 7.5 earthquake, no one is coming for you. I think people think firemen are going to show up in front of their house and that just is not the case,” Blake said. “You need to think about what you are going to do to survive when everybody else is thinking the same thing.”

The onset of the pandemic had led to hordes of people stockpiling goods like bottled water, hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, toilet paper and paper towels, overwhelming the supply chain.

At the same time, restaurants, bars and hotels were shuttered. Having a supply of nonperishable food, or stocking up the freezer with as much meat as a household could purchase became common practice.

The pandemic, coupled with the earthquake, kindled a crushing desire for Utah residents — who already have a reputation for home storage — to become even more self-sufficient.

Ranching stores had a run on chicks, and interest in having individual gardens and canning supplies has still not abated.

Coronavirus sparks run on chicks, feed, other agricultural products
Shane Cammack and his dog Madison sit on the stairs of his Magna home on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Cammack had to replace the skirt of his trailer home and the stairs after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, the strongest recorded in the state in 28 years, struck a year ago. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The big P — Preparedness

Shane Cammack was in Ogden delivering a load of steel for work when he heard news of the earthquake on the radio.

“We knew we’d had an earthquake; everything was swinging and swaying.”

His wife had been admitted to a care center to rehabilitate a broken hip, but he rushed home to that West Valley manufactured home park where he lives with his two dogs, Madison and Felix, to check on them.

“The trailer was sitting down on the ground and the skirting was flopped out,” he said.

“I got my dogs out so they were not totally freaked out and tried to calm them down. They were really scared” he said. “You can see things on the news and it always seems to happen to someone else. When it happens to you, it literally made me sick to my stomach.”

Cammack’s trailer was one of those that had not been properly strapped.

A closet in Shane Cammack’s Magna home is full of water, sugar, flour, oats and perishable foods on Thursday, March 11, 2021. A year after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, the strongest recorded in the state in 28 years, Cammack said he’s prepared if another occurs. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The city paid to lift it up — something he says he is incredibly grateful for — but he had to shell out several thousand dollars to fix the skirting.

“You would just assume when they put these trailers in they would have them anchored,” he said. “Until something like this happens, you just don’t know. You assume it is structurally sound.”

Due to its large number of manufactured homes, the city has since engaged in outreach to contact owners, urging inspections to determine if earthquake straps are in place, Cottle said. So far, the program has been met with positive response, although the city cannot force homeowners to make the repairs.

For his part, Cammack stayed home with his dogs, relying on his portable generator, his supply of freeze-dried food, and about a 60-gallon supply of water.

The Vietnam veteran advises others to take similar steps in the event of another disaster.

“You just have to be prepared. Get camp stoves or anything else you think you may need to survive, because you are not going to be able to rely on government for anything.”

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If people need prescription medication, they should have an extra supply available, as well as other critical items.

“People have to step outside their comfort zone and stand back and envision what would happen if your house collapses and stop with the ‘what ifs.’ I would rather be prepared than a ‘what if,” he said.

“If they don’t want to do it for themselves, they should think about others such as their family or a neighbor who is physically ill. We all need to pull together.”

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