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Utah’s big earthquake: Buildings damaged, but no major injuries, as state braces for days of aftershocks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Damage can be seen in Magna, the epicenter of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on Wednesday morning, March 18, 2020, especially along historic Main Street.

A magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck Magna at 7:09 a.m. Wednesday, March 18, shaking homes from Logan down to Utah County. It was the state’s largest since a 1992 earthquake in St. George. The last Salt Lake County earthquake of at least a magnitude 5 was in 1962.

Here’s a recap of Wednesday’s events:

• A strong aftershock was felt at 1:12 p.m. It registered a 4.6.

• Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County declared earthquake related emergencies, giving them access to federal funds.

• There were power outages, gas leaks and a chemical spill at Kennecott. The acid spill, and a plume it released into the air, was not threatening the public, officials say.

• There have been no reports of serious injuries.

• Rumors of a big earthquake coming are untrue, a forecast of potential aftershocks is included below.

• The earthquake has caused damage to downtown buildings and even the Salt Lake Temple, where the Angel Moroni statue lost its trumpet.

• The Salt Lake City International Airport has reopened. Some state courts have closed.

• In West Valley City, 48 mobile homes were shifted off of their foundations, displacing residents. A Red Cross evacuation center has opened at Valley Junior High School, 4295 3200 West.

“All things considered, we’ve been very fortunate,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said.

The epicenter of the earthquake was northeast of Magna, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Dozens of aftershocks followed. It’s likely there will be hundreds of aftershocks in the days to come, Keith Koper, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations.

He called it a moderate size earthquake, one that hits the state roughly every 10 years. Such temblors are capable of causing “considerable” damage.

Chances of another big quake

Rumors spread fast that a major earthquake would hit soon. That is not true.

The Utah Emergency Management posted on Twitter, “There are rumors out there that earthquakes can be predicted. They cannot be predicted, however, we expect that the earthquake we felt today was the largest one of the sequence. That is true in 95% of earthquakes.”

Koper said his team is not predicting any large earthquake.

The U.S. Geological Survey issued an aftershock forecast. It said there’s a 1 in 300 chance of a magnitude 7 hitting in the coming days, while a 6 is a 3% likelihood. A magnitude 5 or higher is a 17% chance.

Koper advised residents who feel the ground shaking to not run outside but instead find cover, like a table, to duck under.

Damage reports

Rocky Mountain Power still had about 10,000 customers without power as of 1:38 p.m., down from more than 50,000 earlier in the day.

Beyond power outages, some reported damages to their homes and businesses as pictures fell off walls, dishes out of cupboards and products off of the shelves. Some buildings shed bricks, including near the downtown mission that serves Utahns who are homeless. The building next to the mission is a construction site that appears to have been damaged.

Clients of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake stood outside wrapped in blankets waiting to be allowed back inside in small groups to collect their belongings. Ron Long, who works for the mission, said the nonprofit would transport people to the Ogden Rescue Mission while the Salt Lake City shelter is checked for any structural problems.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews at the scene of damage after an earthquake in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

At least 48 West Valley City mobile homes suffered significant damages when they were knocked from their foundations, severing utilities, the city reported.

Kim Castro-Kimball, who lives at Kopper View Mobile Home Park said she was “far better off” than her neighbors — her home did not appear to suffer any structural damage, which was “quite the exception” in the area. The trailer next door was leaning badly and one down the street had completely collapsed.

“There were a lot of tears. A lot of my neighbors were badly affected by this,” Castro-Kimball said, her voice breaking with emotion. “Kids are really scared."

Salt Lake City International Airport — not far from the epicenter — was shut down after the earthquake and passengers were evacuated. It reopened at 1:15 p.m., after a water line in Concourse D was fixed.

“We had 60 to 70 flights diverted,” said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.

The historic Rio Grande Depot, a brick building constructed in 1910, sustained damage but the extent was unclear, according to Josh Loftin, spokesman for the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, which has offices in the building. It houses historical artifacts, some of which the department later reported in a tweet had minor damage.

Additionally, a new school in Herriman — Silver Crest Elementary — reported damage to the front of its building, where pieces of the stone facade crumbled to the ground. And the University of Utah’s Browning Building was closed due to cracks and ceiling issues.

Herbert asked the public to avoid downtown Salt Lake City while crews assess the damage.

Earthquake damage temporarily halted FrontRunner trains between Murray and Salt Lake City for two hours. Trains were traveling at restricted speeds during the day, lengthening commutes. TRAX train service didn’t resume until Wednesday evening.

The Utah Department of Health state lab was down, but would be up and running again Thursday.

The iconic Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in the early phases of undergoing a four-year upgrade, including a seismic retrofit. A church spokesman said there is damage to church facilities. The golden Angel Moroni statue has been damaged. It no longer holds a trumpet and some of the temple’s smaller spire stones had shifted.

The church reported that the headquarter facilities would be closed to evaluate safety.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The statue of Moroni atop the Salt Lake temple, damaged in an earthquake in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

“No workers were injured. Crews on the job site have been sent home for the day, and a full assessment is underway to determine needs going forward," church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a news release. “This event emphasizes why this project is so necessary to preserve this historic building.”

Kyle Bennett, a spokesman for Kennecott Utah Copper, said it halted operations to inspect for any damage and that all employees are safe and accounted for. Salt Lake County reported a chemical spill at a Kennecott warehouse. It released a plume of hydrochloric acid into the air. The Utah National Guard deployed its 85th Civil Support Team to monitor the air after plumes can be seen in the area. The Utah Division of Air Quality said the plume did not threatening residents.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unified Fire Department, Rio Tinto and Utah Highway patrol set up a staging area in the parking lot of Saltair Wednesday to respond to the chemical spill at a warehouse, Mar. 18, 2020.

Because of possible structural damage, the Utah Department of Transportation has closed the ramp to westbound Interstate 215 at Union Park Boulevard. The Cottonwood Heights Police tweeted that it is expected to be closed for three to seven days until a full assessment can be completed.

Transportation spokesman John Gleason said it may not be that long, and no serious damage has yet been identified on the bridge. He said inspectors want to take a closer look at that ramp but are so busy looking at more than 500 bridges in areas affected by the earthquake that they simply closed it for now.

The inmates in the Salt Lake County jail were on lockdown because of the aftershocks. Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said staff were performing minor repairs at the jail.

Utah liquor stores from Logan to Draper and from Heber City to Tooele were closed Wednesday to check for structural damage. And, starting Thursday, those stores able to reopen will have shorter hours, from noon to 7 p.m., due to the coronavirus pandemic.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City sustained some minor damage, said the Rev. Tyler Doherty, dean of the cathedral. “We had some damage to the west transept to our nave, some of the plaster where the wall meets the roof line came down in the sanctuary.”

The organ at St. Mark’s also had damage, when some of the pipes shifted, Doherty said

Both Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County issued emergency proclamations Wednesday to open up federal funding opportunities to cover costs associated with the earthquake. For Salt Lake City, this is its third emergency declaration in recent days, with the other two related to the coronavirus.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the city was conducting an assessment of its buildings but had to start over after the strong aftershock at 1:12 p.m. So far, she said the city’s Parks & Public Lands building at 1965 W. 500 South had sustained “pretty significant damage” and that City Hall had some plaster damage that would need to be fixed “before we can send people back in.”

What it felt like in Magna

“This is one of the scariest things I’ve ever gotten through in my entire life,” said Griffin Bonacci, who lives in the area of 7200 West and 4000 South.

He was in bed when the quake struck, "and it kept ramping up and ramping up and ramping up. It was like a bomb went off. And then, all of a sudden, stuff all around my house was just falling everywhere.“

Laura Burrows, who lives in the area of 7200 West and 3300 South, said “We were all asleep, and all of a sudden the bed started bouncing."

Her 5- and 7-year-old children “came running to us. They were very, very scared. They’re still scared. I told them that the earth is like big puzzle pieces that move around, and we’re going to feel the puzzle pieces move for a while.”

The earthquake hit in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, where many Utahns are hunkering down in their homes, avoiding close contact with others to avoid spreading the virus quickly.

“The big one was really nuts, but these just keep going,” said Stephanie Draper, who lives near 8000 West and 3200 South.

Draper said neighbors have been out checking on each other. “It’s pretty hard when you have coronavirus plus this, but we're working together. We haven’t heard of anyone that’s hurt.”

A Smith’s Food and Drug at 4700 S. 4000 West in West Valley City evacuated after the earthquake hit to assess damage, and start cleaning up the items that shook off its shelves.

“We had a lot of seniors in the store at the time. But no one was hurt,” one worker said.

It had opened early to allow senior citizens to shop by themselves, a group most at threat during the coronavirus outbreak. It has since reopened.

Trish Hull, Magna mayor pro-tempore, said she was impressed with the work of first responders this morning. And she applauded members of the community who helped each other.

The city has put up green, yellow and red papers on each business building to signal which ones are safe to enter.

Utah’s past earthquakes

The last quake of this magnitude hit St. George in 1992, and it was a 5.8, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

UTAH EARTHQUAKES

Here are the magnitude 5 and over in the past century, according to the U. Seismograph Stations

2020 — Magna 5.7

1992 — St. George 5.8

1989 — South Wasatch Plateau 5.4

1962 — Cache Valley 5.7

1962 — Magna 5.2

1961 — Ephraim 5.0

1949 — Salt Lake City 5.0

1910 — Elsinore 5.0

1909 — Hansel Valley 6.0

Wednesday's earthquakes occurred in roughly the same location as a 1962 sequence, the largest registering a magnitude 5.2, according to Robert Smith, a distinguished professor of geophysics at the University of Utah.

All the quakes occurred on a shallow fault, less than 10 kilometers in depth, possibly along one that is not visible on the surface, running north-south on the east side of the Oquirrh Mountains.

Scientists have long warned Utah is due for a large earthquake, particularly with the "Wasatch Fault Zone," where 80% of the state's population lives.

According to a 2016 forecast from the Working Group on Utah Earthquake Probabilities, there was a 43% probability that the Wasatch Front will experience a large earthquake — magnitude 6.75 or greater — in the next 50 years.

Bob Carey, response and recovery bureau chief for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, characterized Wednesday’s quake as a “walk in the park” compared with the potentially destructive quake that is possible and for which all Utahns should be prepared. Still, Wednesday’s quake damaged many older masonry buildings that might have to be rebuilt.

“This is an earthquake that would cause parapets to come off, chimneys to crack and possibly fall,” Carey said. “The closer you get to the epicenter, the greater the damage you’re going to see to these.”

The Utah Geological Survey is installing more seismographic instruments in the field to record the aftershocks and has activated an online clearinghouse.

“That’s going to be a website to which you can contribute photographs and observations so we can memorialize this event,” Carey said, “and use it to better understand future earthquakes.”

Matt Canham, Brian Maffly, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Tony Semerad, Lee Davidson, Courtney Tanner, Scott D. Pierce, Jessica Miller, Nate Carlisle, Taylor Stevens, Bethany Rodgers, Kathy Stephenson, Robert Gehrke, Paighten Harkins and David Noyce contributed to this article.
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