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Floods, quakes and radon, oh my: Utah’s hazard mitigation plan is getting a refresh

An official inspects damage caused by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Magna, Utah. A moderate earthquake Wednesday near Salt Lake City shut down a major air traffic hub, damaged a spire atop a temple and frightened millions of people already on edge from the coronavirus pandemic. There were no reports of injuries.
Alex Goodlett
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AP
An official inspects damage caused by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Magna, Utah. A moderate earthquake Wednesday near Salt Lake City shut down a major air traffic hub, damaged a spire atop a temple and frightened millions of people already on edge from the coronavirus pandemic. There were no reports of injuries.

Utah’s hazard mitigation plan is getting an update, and the state wants your input.

The last revision from the Utah Division of Emergency Management was published in 2019 and covers everything from floods and wildfires to cyber attacks and solar flares.

The last plan was published four years ago, and work has been ongoing with the newest version ever since.

“Once you end a plan, you start working on the next iteration of the plan,” said state hazard mitigation officer Kathy Holder.

Part of the process of is public input. A community survey, open through June 6, asks Utahns to rank the seriousness of various hazards and identify ways the state could help mitigate those risks. According to Holder, that’s to both see what Utahns are the most worried about and identify any blind spots — especially in rural areas.

“When we reach out to the community, we may see some other things that we need to add to our plans that aren't already there,” she said. “One thing that I'm really focusing on is seeing how disaster affects rural communities and what mitigation needs they have. Oftentimes they don't have the resources to help do the planning or to help do the mitigation actions or even the recovery.”

Each community’s needs can be different and local emergency managers can have a lot on their plates.

“My focus is whatever disaster is facing me at any given moment,” said George Colson, the emergency manager in Iron County. “Right now I'm thinking about July and August monsoon season flooding. I'm preparing for that. And we're preparing for wildfire season. I’m paid to think about it, and [the public] generally leaves me free to think about it.”

In accordance with FEMA guidelines, Utah gets a new hazard plan every five years.

According to Holder, one of the top risks Utahns have been worried about in the past is earthquakes. Magna had a record-setting 5.7 magnitude quake in 2020. With the Wasatch Fault line slicing through the northern half of the state and other fault lines crossing the southern half, that risk is warranted throughout Utah.

“The big one, for my county at least, is earthquake,” said Colson. “That’s why we’re having an earthquake exercise in June, because that would be the one that would be the most devastating for my county.”

Besides earthquakes, another issue that has largely flown under the radar is radon.

“What's kind of interesting is that radon is actually one of the issues that we have in our plan, and we make note of it,” Holder said. “But a lot of times I don't think the public pays attention that it’s a number one issue for us here in Utah.”

According to a 2022 report, radon could be in as many as one in three Utah homes and responsible for an estimated 5,826 deaths since 1973.

And with drought plaguing much of the state in past years and a record-setting winter behind us, large swaths of the state are now experiencing flooding. That means issues surrounding water might start to take center stage.

“We've had more avalanches, we're having landslides because of the water content, we are having flooding going on, we're having debris flows happening,” said Holder. “So I would suspect because we're doing this outreach during this time that that is going to be on people's minds.”

The new state hazard mitigation plan needs FEMA approval before going into effect in 2024.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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