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Only one historic building was lost in the Magna earthquake; Why experts warn that “the big” will be worse


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reviewing the history of Utah and the United States for the History section.

Salt Lake City – When a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck the Wasatch front last year, it struck the heart of Utah’s history.

The earthquake caused so much damage that the 110-year-old Rio Grande warehouse, home to the Utah Department of State History and State Historical Archives, was closed because the building was deemed unsafe. Even after a year, the building is still mostly closed due to damage.

The earthquake destroyed nearly 150 historic buildings across Salt Lake County. Of those, Chris Merritt, Utah State Historic Preservation Officer, said only one was severe enough to be demolished. But the earthquake was an important reminder that there are many historic buildings and homes in great danger on the day the next major earthquake strikes the area.

That’s why conservation and geology experts gathered together Thursday evening for a hypothetical conversation that summarizes the damage done a year ago and discusses ways to ensure the next major earthquake won’t be devastating – or at least it’s not the worst case scenario.

“We need to keep having a conversation … we need to have this conversation more than once a year,” said Merritt, as he sat in his office in the Rio Grande warehouse. The wall behind it is still visible large cracks from the earthquake.

“We need a coordinated, standardized, and strategic way to save as many of these buildings as possible to help private companies and homeowners all find ways to preserve these truly wonderful pieces of our past.”

The damage was recorded a year ago

In the aftermath of the March 18, 2020 earthquake, the Utah State Historic Presidency Office has led reviews of historic buildings across major potentially affected areas. This included areas like Magna, near the epicenter, as well as the more historic building sites in Salt Lake City – such as the Hardware and Liberty Wells neighborhood.

The agency’s Initial Report compiled within two weeks of the earthquake identified approximately 145 buildings that were either classified or eligible for historical status that had suffered damage from the earthquake. The list included some well-known structures in the county such as Madeleine’s Cathedral, Crane Building, Fisher Manson, Rio Grande Depot, Salt Lake City County Building, Salt Lake Temple and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The most common damage they encountered was chimneys. The damage to an apartment complex in downtown Salt Lake City was so severe that they alerted outside authorities to the safety risks. Other common damage included cracks in brick or adobe structures. Some of the most affected buildings have also suffered collapsing roofs.

Damage to the home of Septimus Sears in Salt Lake City following the earthquake on March 18, 2020. The damage was so severe that the house, constructed in 1896, was demolished. (Photo: Utah State Historic Preservation Office)

Only one recognized historical structure was not salvageable. Merritt said that the damage to the home of Septimus Sears in the 1902 S. 400 East in Liberty Wells was so extensive that the homeowner decided to demolish it. The house was built in 1896 and is one of the oldest remaining homes in the neighborhood.

“This is the story that I don’t want to happen,” he added. “I don’t want to lose any more historical structures.”

Persistent hazards to historic buildings

The magnitude of the Magna earthquake, a larger earthquake is expected to cause much worse damage.

For example, a document released by Envision Utah estimated that around 60,000 buildings within the four Wasatch Front Counties will be destroyed in 7.0 or greater earthquakes; About 95% of these structures were located in Salt Lake County. An additional 36,000 buildings will be severely damaged.

Envision Utah noted that one of the main reasons so many structures were in danger was that the risk of a large earthquake was not really known until the mid-1970s. Not many buildings had been constructed before this with earthquakes in mind. Salt Lake County is more vulnerable to extensive damage as it houses more homes and businesses.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency released a new report on this issue on the first anniversary of the earthquake. The report said on Thursday that there are about 140,000 buildings in the state commensurate with the risk of serious damage from the earthquake because the buildings “do not contain the steel reinforcement required by modern building codes.”

“It includes a variety of buildings, from individual homes to companies, schools and places of worship,” the agency wrote in a statement. “Such structures can more easily give in to movement and vibrate during an earthquake, which poses a threat to building occupants as well as individuals outside near the buildings.”

The devastating Wasatch Fault Zone earthquake will greatly affect the state, region and country for years afterward. – Steve Bowman is a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey

This is in addition to vital infrastructure such as water, gas and petroleum pipelines, and broadband connectivity in the region. The forecast requires billions of dollars in losses and more economic losses.

“The devastating Wasatch Fault Zone earthquake will dramatically affect the state, the region and the country for years afterward,” said Steve Bowman, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey.

While speakers at Thursday’s event acknowledged the continuing risks of an enviable major earthquake, they also indicated that there are ways to mitigate the effects of the devastating earthquake.

“One of the things that people have to really realize is that we can be prepared and deal with these risks,” Bowman added. “We shouldn’t be afraid of them. We just need to get to know them, meet and deal with them.”

Find solutions to save historic buildings, including homes

Fix the Bricks in Salt Lake City, in coordination with FEMA, is one of the best examples of modern programs aimed at rehabilitating and rehabilitating old homes at risk of serious damage from earthquakes. Experts found that homes that underwent the program went well even after last year’s earthquake.

But it is also a relatively small local program with an expanding queue. It is a program that needs to expand not only to other at-risk communities but to more people, in general, to help rehabilitate more homes faster and reduce any impact from the next major earthquake, said Greg Schultz, Magna Municipal Director. .

“We don’t think FEMA knows how big Fix the Bricks is in this case,” he said. “I can tell you, on Magna Main Street, I cannot point to a building that does not need to be reinforced to the front of the structure to prevent it from being damaged or destroyed in the next earthquake. The other challenge we face here is the large number of unsupported building housing.”

Shultz said it’s not just federal money, it’s something that the state legislature could provide additional money for. It’s also something that public-private partnerships can help finance.

“We have to try and pull every lever possible to make sure we are trying to keep things going,” he added.

Merritt agreed that it was a program that needed to expand due to the many buildings at risk, especially in Salt Lake County.

One of the biggest problems standing in the way of getting out of the long waiting list for brick repair, Schultz said, is that many residents are unaware that their homes are at risk of significant damage. Additionally, many residents may not be able to afford the retrofit.

There have been recent efforts toward earthquake safety. HB 366, sponsored by Rep. Claire Collard, D-Magna, was introduced in the legislative session earlier this year. It aims to require the Utah Seismic Safety Commission to “develop manuals and videos for homeowners regarding earthquake-related hazards from unsupported construction dwellings.”

More specifically, it will educate homeowners to know if they have an “unsupported stone housing” and expand information on how to modify their homes and reduce the risk of severe damage or destruction as a result of a major earthquake. The bill failed in the House of Representatives vote, 26 to 41, earlier this year.

One of the arguments put forward against the bill before the vote on February 24 was that videos were already out there on the internet on how to deal with unreinforced construction housing. Collard then replied that if residents did not know about the problem, they would not search for the videos.

We need to do something really good, pre-thinning action. … the next earthquake may be tomorrow and we cannot sit idle and procrastinate. – Chris Merritt, Utah State Historic Preservation Officer

Collard joined the virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the failed effort. She said that many of her colleagues were aware of and interested in the issue, “but they did not see an urgent need for it.” Residents can move far, she said, but due to housing shortages and housing affordability issues in the state, many cannot. If a resident manages to move, they will pass the stick to another person at risk of a major earthquake.

“Homes will always be occupied, regardless of that,” Collard said. “Normally these residents don’t have the funding to just upgrade their homes, so we know we have to work on that,” indicating that she will pose this problem again later. This year with a bill that could expand Fix the Bricks statewide.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report released Thursday made five recommendations, including new retrofit programs and code modifications.

Earthquake insurance is another thing that is being hugely promoted. While not at the meeting, the Salt Lake County Emergency Management Office tweeted on Thursday that it is important for people to shop for earthquake insurance quotes.

“Most people get a terrible quote the first time and give up,” the agency wrote on Twitter. Shop for earthquake insurance.

While the topic may not seem like an urgent matter at the moment, experts were quick to point out Thursday that no one knows when the “big issue” will hit. All that is known is that historical patterns indicate that it is likely to occur at any time over the next few decades. The Magna earthquake was a reminder of the unpredictability of the situation.

But this also leaves an unknown time frame to complete retrofit to reduce the impact of a major earthquake. That’s why experts have argued that it is more important to work on as many buildings as possible now, rather than wait.

“We need to do something really good, which is pre-dilution work,” Merritt said. “It could be the next earthquake tomorrow, and we cannot sit idly and stall.”

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