If there was a silver lining to 5.7 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Wasatch Front on March 18, 2020, it’s that in-person learning had been suspended in schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving buildings empty so that no injuries occurred.

But the quake had significant financial impacts, especially where older schools had not been modified to survive a significant temblor.

The earthquake caused substantial damage to West Lake STEM Junior High in West Valley City, which was later deemed “a complete loss,” according to the March 2021 Wasatch Front Unreinforced Masonry Reduction Strategy report. The Granite Board of Education recently accepted a $37.4 million insurance settlement to repair the school.

Two other Granite District schools — Granite Park Junior High and Cyprus High — were also damaged. In the Davis School District, Clearfield High School and Davis Junior High both sustained damage to expansion joints and the latter had damage to flooring.

Schools in the Jordan, Weber and Tooele school districts also received minor and mostly cosmetic damage.

Yet in places like the Salt Lake City School District, which had been retrofitting schools for years, no damage was reported.

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Fault zone represents ‘catastrophic’ threat

Seismic risk looms large along the Salt Lake Valley, where the Wasatch Fault “poses one of the most catastrophic natural threat scenarios in the United States. The Wasatch Front has a 43% chance of a magnitude 6.75 or greater earthquake in the next 50 years, and experts project that such an event would be among the deadliest and costliest disasters in U.S. history,” the report states.

The proximity of the fault to a densely populated urban corridor is a key risk factor.

“This danger is heightened by the number of people who live, learn, work, worship or shop  in URM (unreinforced masonry) buildings and may be unaware of the potential danger. Additionally, those who live in URM buildings often include a disproportionate number of disadvantaged and marginalized populations,” the report states.

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Typically, unreinforced masonry buildings have brick walls with few or no steel reinforcing bars. During earthquakes, unreinforced masonry buildings that have not been retrofitted often collapse inward and outward, “crumbling on top of people, vehicles, sidewalks or other structures in and around them,” the report states.

The Wasatch Front Unreinforced Masonry Reduction Strategy study also notes that select Utah school districts have been retrofitting or replacing seismically deficient school buildings for more than two decades.

“While much has been done, a disparity exists between school districts with significant financial resources and those that are unable to overcome major obstacles in dealing with seismically deficient buildings, including a lack of viable funding mechanisms,” it states.

The report notes that Utah mandates that children attend school, “hence, the state should be considered a partner in ensuring that all schools are safe.”

According to the report, to create a risk-reduction program for schools, the following objectives should be achieved:

• Validate and finalize the statewide inventory of unreinforced masonry school buildings.

• Meet with individual districts to review inventory and discuss mitigation options.

• Assess building risks and prioritize retrofits or mitigation strategies.

• Establish a target date for all unreinforced masonry schools to be repurposed, retrofitted or demolished within a maximum 12-year timeframe.

• Fund seismic mitigation. Prioritize state and federal funding for school districts that are unable to develop local funding options.

Who is paying to be prepared?

By and large, school districts cover the costs of replacing or retrofitting schools themselves, although some have secured limited federal grants to perform the work.

Starting in the 1990s, the Salt Lake City School District undertook a comprehensive effort to retrofit and rebuild vulnerable schools spending more than $200 million from voter-approved bonds. The initiative expanded to $401 million over the next two decades, the report states.

The investment appears to have been prudent. There were no reports of damage to Salt Lake schools following the Magna quake.

The final two school rebuilds were completed in 2019. The district’s aging administration building is the last facility to be addressed. The school board has discussed plans for the structure on several occasions but the matter was pushed to the back burner while the district addressed COVID-19 impacts, said Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Zavala Chatwin.

According to the report, the Salt Lake bond issues passed with high voter approval “because the city and parents of school-aged children had seen the effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and wanted their schools to be safe.”

The magnitude 6.9 earthquake in the San Francisco area caused 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries, and about $6 billion in damage, according to National Geographic.

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Murray City School District completed life-safety retrofits to all of its school buildings prior to the March 2020 quake. The effort commenced a decade ago using a combination of federal grants and bonding.

The Magna quake damaged only one Murray school, a nonstructural footlong crack at Horizon Elementary School.

According to John Masek, a licensed structural engineer who served as project manager for the Murray District retrofits, there is a large cost-benefit ratio to seismic mitigation.

“It’s often much more cost-effective to retrofit before an earthquake than repair or replace buildings after an earthquake damages them. Furthermore, and more importantly, seismic retrofitting helps to protect the lives of students and faculty in the facilities,” Masek said in a Federal Emergency Management Agency press release.

Granite opting to replace rather than repair

The Granite School Board decided that instead of repairing West Lake STEM Junior High, it would be rebuilt with the $37 million from insurance and emergency bonding authority covering the remaining construction costs, estimated to be $10 million to $15 million, said communications director Ben Horsley.

Since the start of this school year, Granite’s Westlake STEM Junior High School has operated out of the former Westbrook Elementary School in Taylorsville. The elementary school was vacant because the school board voted to close it in late 2019.

This academic year, some 900 students have been bused to the school, which is about 5 miles from their home campus. Modular classrooms were placed on the elementary school campus and the district made building modifications to accommodate a larger number of students and address junior high programming needs.

For instance, elementary schools use multipurpose rooms as dining space and gymnasiums. Since a junior high schedules gym classes throughout the day, it needs a dedicated space for that purpose. Showering and dressing facilities had to be established.

Earlier this month, the school board approved the acquisition of a $348,120 relocatable lab building to be placed at the temporary West Lake campus. The district has also spent at least $3.7 million on site improvements and purchasing additional school buses.

Although the insurance settlement would have addressed repairs to the 1960s-era school, it would not cover costs of equipment upgrades. Some of those upgrades are necessitated by advances in school technology but also changes in school operations and hygiene practices resulting from the pandemic, Horsley said.

The junior high had been scheduled to be rebuilt in five to 10 years, but the school board opted to push up the timetable while interest rates are favorable.

“We’re hoping to have it done on an expedited timeline. That obviously means everything has to go perfectly. But we’re hoping that students will be able to be in that building the fall of 2023. If it goes on a few months more, that’s OK, but that’s our goal and we want to have a big, hairy, audacious goal and try and get it done by then,” Horsley said.