Utah may be due for major earthquake event, experts warn

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Structural damage to a building in downtown Magna caused by the 2020 M5.7 Magna earthquake. The unreinforced masonry, or brick, on the front of the building, failed due to strong ground shaking. Photo courtesy of Utah Geological Survey.

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(ABC4) – The nation watched helplessly as another major storm struck the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Ida made its way up the East Coast last week.

The storm, which reached Category 4 status before reaching land on August 29, which coincidentally was the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, has reportedly caused dozens of deaths and tens of billions of dollars worth of damages.

While last week’s storm was one of the worst on record, hurricanes are nothing new to U.S. residents residing near the Gulf.

It begs the question, however, what is Utah’s biggest natural disaster threat?

According to experts, Utahns should be most concerned about a potentially catastrophic earthquake affecting the Wasatch Front.

“What the hurricanes do in and along the coast is what the tornadoes do in the Midwest, and it’s what the earthquakes will do here in Mountain West,” Be Ready Utah Program Manager Wade Mathews explains to ABC4.com. “Widespread disaster and damage, including injury.”

Utah recently experienced the strength and sudden nature of an earthquake. The quake that shook the state on March 18, 2020, with its epicenter near Magna, ticked a 5.7 on the magnitude scale and was felt all around the northern part of the state. Luckily, no major damage was reported, but the image of the Angel Moroni on top of the Salt Lake Temple standing without his signature trumpet was a lasting one of the event’s impact.

FILE Image: Broken trumpet on Angel Moroni

Jaime Farrell, who works as a researcher and professor at the University of Utah’s seismograph station feels it was fortunate that the earthquake took place as a pandemic was beginning to set in. Had students at one of the damaged schools, such as Cyprus High School in Magna and West Lake Junior High in West Valley City, been in class, there likely would have been more major injuries than the zero that were reported.

Farrell is hopeful that the Magna quake 18 months ago can still keep the importance of earthquake preparedness in the minds of Utahns, especially those along the Wasatch Front. According to both Farrell and Mathews, the science shows that Utah is due for an even bigger earthquake.

“It seems like the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault is coming up on the time period where you expect another large earthquake to occur,” Farrell says, noting that an earthquake would need to exceed a magnitude of 6.0 to break the surface and cause significant damage.

Soil samples from trenches dug along the Wasatch Fault, which runs about 220 miles long from central Utah to southern Idaho, show that the last 6.0 or 7.0 scale earthquake in the Salt Lake City segment took place around 1,300 years ago, Farrell says. That would be around the same interval in between other major quakes on the fault line, he adds.

The largest earthquake that the Wasatch Fault would be able to create would be around 7.3-magnitude, which was roughly the same size as one that struck Haiti in August, killing over 2,000. Farrell is concerned that a major earthquake event in the Salt Lake Valley could be potentially devastating.

“I would expect a magnitude 6, mid-6, or low 7s would have a big impact on our area,” he states. “Not only would you have a lot of damage to buildings, old schools, hospitals, but a lot of the infrastructure, like the utilities and all that kind of stuff.”

One major issue in the event of a major earthquake in Utah would be access to drinking water. To that end, and other safety concerns, both Farrell and Mathews say being prepared – with both the necessities and knowledge of protective actions – should be a priority for Utahns.

“You have to have your basic supplies to get you through at least the short-term recovery process,” Mathews recommends, suggesting that Utahns visit BeReadyUtah.com for more comprehensive information. “Recovery is going to be very long term in a large disaster, but in the short term, you need your disaster supply kit.”

An often overlooked part of being prepared is an emergency fund to handle the finances of an evacuation situation. Citing a report he saw that many Americans would not be able to call on even $400 to get evacuated, Mathews says having a little bit of coin to get out of a disaster should also be a consideration.

While he understands the perilous nature of a potential major earthquake in Utah, Farrell says he doesn’t walk around scared or paranoid of what could happen at any time. He is aware of the possibility, however, saying the best thing to do is to be ready.

“The better you are prepared now, the better you will be an hour after the next event occurs,” Farrell states. “I don’t think it’s something that people need to be scared about or constantly worried about, but I think it does help to have people not forget about it, so they can be prepared.”

Be Ready Utah is hosting a free informational webinar on disaster preparation on Sept. 16. Registration can be found here.

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