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New report identifies 119 school campuses with buildings vulnerable to earthquake

Copperview Elementary School in Midvale was built in 1961, a classic unreinforced masonry structure, but has since been retrofitted to provide additional support.
Jon Reed
Copperview Elementary School in Midvale was built in 1961, a classic unreinforced masonry structure, but has since been retrofitted to provide additional support.

More than 72,000 students in Utah attend school in buildings that are especially vulnerable to an earthquake, according to a report released Thursday from the Utah Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The report identified 119 public school campuses that have at least one Unreinforced Masonry Building across 28 districts. Those are buildings made of brick with little to no steel reinforcement that could see significant damage even during small earthquakes.

Davis and Granite by far have the most number of URM buildings on their campuses, with 34 and 28, respectively. Districts in Salt Lake County have 39 URM buildings across 31 campuses.

The report found 14 districts don't have "identified" URM buildings, though three of those districts "likely" have campuses with unreinforced buildings that still need to be confirmed.

In total, the buildings identified are valued at close to $2 billion and serve about 12% of the state’s student population.

State officials say the report is a crucial step in mitigating the potential damage from a magnitude 6.75 or greater earthquake, which experts estimate has a 43% chance of hitting the state in the next 50 years. A quake that big would generate about 30 times more energy than the Magna earthquake that rocked the state in March 2020, the report said.

“We dodged a bullet with our Magna earthquake,” said Ari Bruening, executive director of the nonprofit planning organization Envision Utah, who’s been involved with state disaster preparation plans. “That was significantly smaller than the earthquake we could face. We saw significant damage to some of these unreinforced masonry schools. And if it hadn't been a pandemic, there would have been kids who were injured or killed in some of those schools.”

Utah emergency management officials note students should not feel they are in imminent danger if they attend school that has URM buildings. They also said districts have made significant progress over the years. Sixty years ago, about 95% of school buildings were URM structures, they said. Today, that number is around 12%.

East High School demolition in Salt Lake City in 1996.
Lynn R Johnson
Salt Lake Tribune
Demolition of unreinforced masonry construction at Salt Lake City's East High School in 1996.

9th grader Sierra Sun, who is part of Envision Utah’s Youth Council that has studied the issue, said she is relieved to finally have the report. She said her family first began to worry about vulnerable buildings while attending events at her older brother's school, Hillcrest High in Midvale, which has since been demolished and rebuilt.

“It was a really old building,” she said. “They had bats in their auditorium along with a lot of walls that just looked kind of unsafe. And so we were worried that if there was an earthquake during the school day, that would become a really big problem.”

The report said identifying vulnerable buildings is just a first step in addressing the issue and must be followed by funding and policy solutions.

The study only looked at public school districts — not charters or private schools. And because of limited building reports and other data, many of the buildings identified have to be confirmed with districts.

There are an estimated 140,000 URM structures across the state, the report said, many of which are not on school grounds. Officials say school buildings are a priority, however, both because students spend so much time there and because they can serve as gathering places for the community during emergencies.

Jessica Chappell, a structural engineer who worked on the report and vice chair of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, said every dollar invested in mitigation efforts on average could save $4 in recovery spending. She said she recognizes schools are facing significant challenges due to the pandemic, but ensuring school buildings are safe is not something that can be ignored.

“I would never want to see these seismic safety issues come at the cost of all the other programs,” Chappell said. “The good news is that we've got a lot of people focused on this issue that really want to do what we can to support these local education agencies to fill in the gaps that they have.”

The report recommends several next steps, beginning with a feasibility study to assess the most cost-effective ways to retrofit or rebuild vulnerable buildings. Lawmakers with the public education appropriations committee have recommended allocating $3.8 million in one-time funds towards the effort.

From there, experts suggest creating statewide retrofit standards and establishing a target date by which all school buildings will be repurposed, retrofitted or demolished.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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