Earthquake could send shockwaves across Utah Valley

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The wise man built his house on a rock, but Utah Valley sits on top of sand and mud.

An earthquake, in combination with seismically unsafe housing, can wipe out Utah Valley in a matter of minutes, throwing a road block into the life plans of BYU students. Geologists are not sure when the earthquake will rumble across Utah, but they know its potential strength. For people living in seismically unsafe housing constructed before the 1980s, the worst is yet to come.

Earthquakes pose a looming threat over Utah Valley, but many students are not properly prepared should disaster strike. Photo Illustration by Chris Bunker

The Wasatch Fault is still active as the valley pulls away from the mountains at a rate of three millimeters a year. Subsequently, the fault gathers energy which will one day release in the form of an earthquake estimated to measure between 7.0 and 7.3 on the Richter scale. It will be a shallow quake, occurring ten miles below ground.

“There’s no place safe from earthquakes in Utah Valley or Salt Lake Valley because of the nature of the fault,” Ron Harris, a BYU geology professor, said.

An earthquake magnitude scale operates exponentially, meaning a 7.0 earthquake would be three times that of the Haiti earthquake which killed an estimated 300,000 people in 2010.

“We have a weapon of mass destruction sitting right underneath us, and people are in denial because they think it won’t happen here,” Harris said. “That’s exactly what the people in Haiti thought.”

Harris said preparing 72-hour kits and keeping food storage is only reactionary to the disaster when more should be done in advance. Currently more than 150,000 buildings in Utah and Salt Lake Valleys are not built to seismic code, as they were constructed before people understood the problem. This includes as many as 1,000 schools, according to an article published earlier this year by Edward C. Wolf and Yumei Wang, P.E.

Harris isn’t the only one concerned. Last year the Western States Seismic Policy Council released a statement about its worries over the unsafe structural conditions of many Utah schools. “Children have the right to be safe in school buildings during earthquakes,” they said.

Harris said he is most concerned about the students’ housing.

“BYU is progressive in trying to make its buildings up to seismic code on campus, but off campus they are way behind the curve,” he said. “BYU has to approve every place a BYU student lives; that approval should include seismic safety.”

Garry Briggs, BYU’s general manager of off-campus housing, said it is unrealistic to require all apartments and houses without seismic protections to implement such construction changes. He said doing so would require those buildings to be razed and then rebuilt.

“Economically that just wouldn’t make sense,” Briggs said. “As long as facilities meet Provo City standards, then it gives us a certain degree of comfort.”

Provo City’s Zoning Department has plans for helping community members evaluate the safety of their homes after an earthquake. But for now, only new buildings are required to meet seismic codes.

“You have to meet the new requirements for anything new,” said Brent Taylor, a Provo building inspector. “But if it’s an existing building, you can’t go out and enforce earthquake (standards).”

This creates a unique situation for BYU students who live in older structures which do not meet seismic codes. Aside from moving to earthquake safe housing, many feel their best bet is to keep basic supplies handy for when the disaster shakes Utah Valley.

Shelliece Harris, an environmental science major from Hooper, has taken Church leaders’ advice to be ready for an emergency. “I keep a $20 bill in my wallet. I keep my gas tank at least half full. I have a 72-hour kit,” she said. “It is best just to be prepared in case you can’t leave or get to a grocery store.”

The organizational makeup of BYU creates a preparedness plan in and of itself. “The wards have their emergency planner (and) their home teachers. They have the bishop who watches over the flock and the stake president,” said Adam Roblyer, a safety officer for BYU Risk Management. “There’s somebody watching out for everybody.”

Preparedness kits can be a challenge to create and store as students tend to have limited space and funds. “We are encouraged to keep 72-hour packs. In our apartment it’s hard to find a convenient place to store all of that,” said Jensen Hayter, a ward emergency preparedness representative from Highland.

Be Ready Utah, the state’s preparedness program, recommends people purchase items on sale and gradually add them to their stock. “Even $20 a month can go a long way to helping you be ready. Buy one preparedness item each time you go to the grocery store,” the website said.

Molly Greenwald, a family history major, knows the importance of managing finances while keeping food storage. A Nashua, N.H., native, Greenwald makes sure she is prepared for anything, including having enough funds to return home if needed.

“I have a credit card for emergencies, but that is all I am going to use it for. That is my emergency money,” she said. “If you understand, recognize and accept that nothing is permanent, it helps you be prepared and cope with things that might happen.”

Others question if preparedness items will be enough to carry them through when the quake cracks across Utah. For Harris, it all goes back to the off-campus housing dilemma. “They (BYU) control where people live,” he said. “They control off-campus housing.”

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