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State Reviews Seismic Safety Of Public School Buildings

State officials are reviewing all of Utah’s public schools to see how they’d hold up in a major earthquake. Previous studies show more than half of schools may need seismic upgrades.

The Utah State Board of Education started gathering data on the structural safety of school buildings after state lawmakers set aside $150,000 for the project back in 2013. Barry Welliver is a structural engineer who helped make the case for that funding.

“Whenever we did this kind of work, and presented it the legislators, they would come up to me afterwards and they’d say well, could you tell me if my kid’s school is on this list? It’s that kind of a thing,” Welliver says.

Welliver is aware of the practical implications of potentially retrofitting hundreds of buildings. 

“It costs money,” he says. “The flipside of that is you cannot afford to be embarrassed by having shirked your duty after an earthquake.”

Scientists say Utah is due for an earthquake with a magnitude of five or larger in next 50 years.

Some school districts like Salt Lake and Davis have upgraded buildings with bond money. Chris Williams is a spokesman for Davis School District.  

“We do everything we can to tie those boilers down and to tie roofs to existing walls in case an earthquake hits,” Williams says. “People can get out of the buildings, and then we can take a look at them and see, okay, can they be used again?”

But some districts and charter schools can’t afford the improvements.  Scott Jones is deputy superintendent of operations for the State Board of Education.

“We’ll do what’s necessary,” Jones says. “I feel confident that given the data, we can come up with cost-effective methods that help legislators make an informed decision on hey, here’s how much this will cost. Here are some alternatives.”

The Utah Seismic Safety Commission will likely release a report later this year on data gathered from schools across the state. 

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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