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Will Utah's Buildings Stand Strong In A Major Earthquake?

File Photo / KUER

After a string of natural disasters, many Utahns are wondering if the state is ready for an emergency. With a high likelihood of a large earthquake in the coming decades, building safety  is a frequent worry.  

Just because a building is built to code doesn’t mean it will be damage-free after an earthquake, according to structural engineer Gerald McKenzie.

"It’s all built around that Life Safety [Code]. Can we get people out and minimize the injuries to people?"

"And then if the building has to be torn down, it has to be torn down," said McKenzie, who also sits on the Utah Seismic Safety Commission.

When "the big one" does hit, how will homes, schools and other buildings along the Wasatch Front hold up? 

"I don’t think we are where we need to be with the retrofits," said McKenzie.

In Salt Lake County alone there are nearly a quarter million unreinforced homes. These older, unreinforced buildings were typically built before the 1970s and pose a high risk of damage, especially to the roofs and chimneys.

"Definitely, there are pockets of areas that might be more of a concern," McKenzie said, pointing to the Avenues neighborhood in Salt Lake City as an example.

There are also outdated schools. According to a 2011 survey, 60 percent of Utah schools need seismic retrofits.

One of the best structural defenses against an earthquake is base isolation, which lifts the building off the ground and minimizes movement during a quake. The State Capitol underwent a seismic retrofit about a decade ago and now sits on more than 250 base isolators.

Of course, no building is "earthquake proof" and seismic upgrades are expensive.

So is there a way to know if your home, your office building or your child’s school has a high risk of sustaining damage in an earthquake?

Maps on show broad damage estimates in Salt Lake County, said Battalion Chief Clint Mecham with Salt Lake County Emergency Management.

"As far as your specific building, you would probably need to reach out to your individual city building departments and see what they have on file," Mecham said.

Mecham thinks Utahns will handle a disaster better than people in other states might, as far as personal preparedness goes.

"I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where I’m going to say that we’re where we need to be," Mecham said, "but I think we’re a lot further ahead now than we have been in the past."

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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