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Health, Science & Environment

It’s Been A Year Since The Magna Earthquake. Is Utah Prepared For The Next One?

A man surveys damage to a building in downtown Magna.
Courtesy Utah State Historic Preservation Office
A man surveys damage to a building in downtown Magna.

It’s been a year since the magnitude 5.7 earthquake shook the Salt Lake Valley. The center was in Magna, but it was felt widely across the Wasatch Front and as far as California.

It was also followed by nearly 2,600 aftershocks, including six ranging between magnitude 4.0 to 4.9.

State estimates found there were upwards of $62 million in building-related damages, contributing to $629 million in total economic losses related to buildings, not including damages to public infrastructure.

State Historic Preservation Officer Chris Merritt said after about three days of surveying the quake’s impact, he and his team identified damage to 145 historic buildings.

In Magna, which saw the most damage, walls and some entire buildings collapsed. In Salt Lake City’s warehouse district west of downtown, some of the biggest brick buildings, such as the Crane Building just north of Pioneer Park, had massive structural cracks running almost the entire height of the walls.

Merritt said the damage was not as dramatic in residential neighborhoods, though that is where danger can be greatest. Chimneys in many older houses in the Liberty Wells neighborhood collapsed, tearing through roofs or landing on cars.

A photo of a brick chimney damaged.
Chimney damage to an older building near downtown Salt Lake City.

Luckily, though, no one was seriously injured and no major buildings fully collapsed. Merritt credits that in part to preparations made prior to the earthquake, including messaging around planning for natural disasters, building retrofits and quick responses from first responders and other state agencies.

“The preparation paid off,” he said. “But to me, it's like shaking people awake, like we need to keep going. We need to keep investing.”

Researchers estimate there is a roughly 50% chance a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake will hit the state in the next 50 years. That could cause not only major building collapses but serious injuries and death.

Merritt said he worries not enough has been done since the Magna quake to ensure older buildings, particularly unreinforced masonry structures, withstand the next major event.

Much of the problem comes down to cost. He said retrofitting a building could run anywhere from $10,000 to $1 million, depending on the scope of the work and size of the building. While there are grant programs and tax credits available, they are limited.

Steve Bowman, geologic hazards program manager with the Utah Geological Survey, said short of investing thousands of dollars in building upgrades, there are smaller things people can do to prepare. He advised people to consult Be Ready Utah, which can help them come up with an emergency plan. He said it also helps to get to know and plan ahead with neighbors.

“When you do have one of these events that impact your neighborhood, you can really come through it together and not have to do it all alone,” he said.

He said that kind of preparation won’t just help during earthquakes, but any major disaster.

For more on earthquake preparation, the Utah State Historic Preservation Office is hosting a virtual event Thursday, 3/18/21 at 6 p.m., available on Zoom or YouTube. Participants can register here.

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