Kelly Dazet was home, fixing himself a cup of coffee, when a roar like a passing freight train filled his Sugar House neighborhood.
“All of a sudden everything was moving. It felt like the house was going back and forth and up and down,” Dazet said, recalling the magnitude 5.7 earthquake that rocked northern Utah a year ago this month. “The cat ran under the table. How does a cat know to do that? Everything was rattling and shaking.”
Among the jarring that morning was the unreinforced masonry enveloping Dazet’s 1924 home, an example of Salt Lake City’s dominant construction mode from that era.
By happenstance, Dazet had the gabled, one-story brick bungalow retrofitted to better withstand earthquakes only a few months earlier. Using a grant program administered by Salt Lake City, he reinforced the gables, secured the roof to the walls and braced the two chimneys.
His retrofit is just one of many measures — from performing pricey renovations to stocking a simple 72-hour kit — that Utahns have taken, or should be taking, to be ready for a seismic disaster that could strike any day.
The March 18 quake, which hit just as Utah’s coronavirus-induced lockdowns began, served as a wake-up call for the state’s roughly 2.5 million residents, or 80% of its populace, who live within 15 miles of a fault, according to disaster-law expert Lisa Grow Sun. The magnitude 5.7 quake, which damaged buildings in Magna, West Valley City and Salt Lake City, however, was a Sunday stroll compared with the epic trauma Utah is expected to experience in the coming decades. Seismologists say there is a 43% chance of a quake exceeding magnitude 6.7 hitting the Wasatch Front over the next 50 years.
A jolt that size — 11 times stronger than last year’s temblor — could kill 3,000 people, seriously injure 10,000 and displace tens of thousands.
“We tend to think that we’re relatively immune from high death toll disasters,” said Sun, a professor at Brigham Young University’s law school, “and Utah’s earthquake would be one of the deadliest or could be one of the deadliest disasters that the United States has seen, pandemic aside, since 9/11.”
Much of that casualty count would be associated with collapsing masonry in unreinforced structures, which abound in Utah’s historic neighborhoods.
The Dazet home endured the rumbling unscathed, and the owner was able to later obtain earthquake coverage that the house would not have qualified for absent the seismic fix financed by the city’s Fix the Bricks program. After the quake, some 3,000 homeowners signed up, but the program now has a waitlist extending out for years.
“People should do it,” Dazet said. “Without reinforcing, the roof is going to slide off the walls. The people inside will have a much better chance of surviving in the event of a big earthquake. It’s not necessarily going to be something that is going to save the house. It’s a safety issue.”
On the day of the earthquake, many Utahns were already on edge, renewing emergency plans, stocking up on supplies and focusing on how to better prepare their loved ones for disaster.
But in the months since the main quake and its nerve-rattling aftershocks, the public health crisis pushed the seismic threat off the main stage. The vicious virus wafting through our air has made it difficult to worry about the ground beneath our feet. COVID-19 has even complicated and slowed efforts to retrofit buildings and shore up infrastructure.
“Our disaster managers and emergency planners are pretty preoccupied with their attention and time filled with pandemic issues,” Sun said. “On the other hand, the pandemic is showing us some important things — how devastating a major disaster can be to an economy.”
Online presentation on how to prepare
On Thursday, the state’s Historic Preservation Office will host an online presentation on the quake and its aftermath. “Magna Earthquake: One Year Later” will explore lessons learned from the earthquake, how we can better prepare for future temblors and resources available for homeowners. Participants include Steve Bowman of the Utah Geologic Survey, Magna Metro Township Manager Greg Schulz, and Chris Merritt, Utah’s historic preservation officer. Register for this free event at https://tinyurl.com/w2v86yn7.
Why it was ‘a good earthquake’
Last year’s quake, centered near Magna, made a mess of its historic commercial district, filling the streets with dislodged bricks, and displaced residents at a West Valley City mobile home park.
Officials documented damage to 77 historic buildings across the Salt Lake Valley, including apartment complexes, churches and commercial offices. Hardest hit was the Rio Grande Depot, which houses the state Office of Historic Preservation itself and is still undergoing repairs.
The 1896 Sears mansion was battered beyond repair in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood. The owners of the elegant Victorian called in a demolition crew, and now a vacant lot is sprouting weeds at the corner of 400 East and Westminster Avenue.
Although few buildings and no lives were lost, the quake caused millions of dollars in damage. Federal disaster aid awarded $1.1 million to 956 individuals and another $2.3 million in small-business loans to 89 applicants. But property owners covered most costs out of pocket.
Even so, it was “a good earthquake for us. It was like dodging a bullet. If we caught a magnitude 7 quake under the Salt Lake Valley, it would have been catastrophic,” said Keith Koper, a University of Utah seismologist who heads the state’s Seismic Safety Commission. “It’s coming. It will happen eventually. It’s a matter of when.”
Aryana Allen took that warning to heart. The Clearfield mother prepared an emergency stash for her and her 9-year-old daughter filled with survival gear, such as clothing packed in airtight bags, food, water bottles, flashlights and spare batteries.
“We have also practiced earthquake drills, secured large household items, and researched how our area will someday be affected,” she wrote in an online Salt Lake Tribune survey. “We both understand that only so much can be done in preparation, but feeling a little more prepared has drastically helped our sense of security.”
Allen said it is easy to forget about seismic dangers until the ground starts rocking.
“We are educated via various sources throughout the state regarding our fault lines and the hazards of earthquakes, but the reality of being in one with your child is sobering, to say the least,” she wrote. “I previously thought that keeping my family safe consisted of home security systems, etc. The earthquake removed some of my confidence in our safety.”
The quake prompted thousands of other Wasatch Front residents to beef up their disaster readiness as well. For many, those preparations paid off less than six months later, when a windstorm, packing hurricane-force gales, raked Salt Lake City, toppling century-old trees and shutting down power for days.
Quake poses the biggest threat
Water, air and fire all threaten Utah, but it is the earth itself that appears capable of delivering the most devastating natural blow.
“That would be our big showstopper in Utah, right?” said Ari Bruening, executive director of Envision Utah. “We’re humming along doing great, but an earthquake would really, really, really set us back.”
After the March 18 quake, structural engineers, planners and geologists formed a group called Utah Citizens for Seismic Safety to promote consistent messaging on what Utahns should do to brace for a major temblor. The group boiled down the message to four key points:
• The seismic threat is real.
• The impact could be big.
• Utah has a problem with unreinforced masonry structures.
• Action is needed.
“These basic sentences are based on what we know from science and our professional perspectives,” said group member Divya Chandrasekhar, a professor of urban planning at the U. “We are trying to create a more cohesive message around earthquakes and unreinforced masonry, which is the biggest contributor to our earthquake risk. The first task was to come up with a clear, concise message that can be adopted and embraced by any organization involved with this issue.”
She recommends reading “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country,” a handbook published by the Utah Geological Survey (and illustrated by Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley). The guide explains the seismic risks Utah faces and what can be done to lower them.
Among other measures, the tips urge residents to:
• Secure top-heavy furniture to wall studs.
• Keep a spare set of shoes and a flashlight beside every bed.
• Store drinking water in 5-gallon jugs in safe locations.
• Stock an emergency kit with enough provisions to get your family by for 72 hours.
According to Salt Lake City emergency management officials, a worst-case earthquake could displace 350,000 residents and inflict moderate to severe damage to 85% of the city’s homes, bricks or not. Roads and freeways could be impassable and basic services could be disrupted for weeks if not months. Failed masonry structures would wind up being just a piece of a much larger problem for which cities need to plan.
“If the disaster strikes, a lot of people will be displaced with no place to go,” said Chandrasekhar, who also serves on the seismic safety commission. “We have to think about where they would go. You don’t want them to go off to Denver and never come back.”
The masonry menace
Because masonry was such a common method of construction before 1950, 147,000 such structures remain unreinforced in Utah, more than in all of California with 13 times the population.
Brick and mortar did hold advantages for Utah builders. The materials were inexpensive, locally sourced, and created buildings that made for attractive neighborhoods and commercial districts, said Chris Hansen, deputy director of the state Historic Preservation Office.
“It was the vernacular building material here in Utah,” Hansen said. “I don’t think there was a lot of thought of earthquakes early on.”
Masonry is heavy and inflexible, so it does not perform well when the ground heaves. Nowhere was that more apparent March 18 than along Magna’s historic Main Street, where century-old storefronts abut one another for several blocks.
Bricks tumbled off the walls and facades of the one- and two-story commercial buildings, disrupting some of the township’s most beloved businesses, such as Colosimo’s Original Sausage.
A year later, most of the structures have been restored, but some remain boarded up, such as the building known as “Red Rooster Records,” named for a fictional location depicted in Disney’s hit show “Andi Mack,” whose episodes were shot in Magna. The building never held a record store — it did sell lawn mowers once — but the moniker stuck.
The building suffered reparable damage, but renovation efforts have been thwarted, according to owner James Touhuni.
“We were trying to restore and make it usable again,” said Touhuni, who has been forced to release his tenants. “Can’t get the permits to get it restored.”
About Fix the Bricks
Brick homes and apartments abound in Utah’s historic neighborhoods, putting at risk thousands of lives. Seismic retrofits can go a long way toward lowering the danger, so Utah offers property owners tax credits that cover up to 20% of the cost as an incentive.
Chandrasekhar recommends that those who own an unreinforced masonry home in Salt Lake City get the work done if they can afford it.
“It may save your life,” the urban planning professor said.
Currently, Salt Lake City is the only Utah municipality participating in Fix the Bricks — funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA — although Magna hopes to join.
Jobs typically brace chimneys and tie walls into roof rafters or joists and run $15,000 to 20,000. Under the program, the homeowner is reimbursed 75% of the price tag.
“We are only looking at the top of the house,” said Audrey Pierce, who administers the city’s program. “We focus on preventing the collapse of the building so people can get out.”
Crumbling chimneys can be particularly dangerous, which is why people should not try exiting a home while it is shaking.
Most older Salt Lake City homes come with at least one chimney, built at a time when coal was burned for heat. If a chimney is no longer needed, a better option may be to remove it rather than brace it.
The best time to do a retrofit is when you are replacing the roof, since it has to come off to complete the job.
“We have to expose the top of the exterior wall so we take off the roofing and sheathing,” said Burke Hills, whose Hills Construction is a leading Utah contractor for seismic upgrades in older brick homes. “We drive pins down into the brick and tie the top plate to the brick and put in blocking and framing anchors and strapping.”
Tying the foundation to the walls also helps, but the city program doesn’t fund that.
“When the ground is moving and the house starts to oscillate, the higher off the ground, the more violent that movement is,” Hills said. “By securing the roof to walls and chimneys you are going to do a lot more good for the money. For the house to walk off the foundation, that’s going to be a really heavy earthquake.”
The city received a $5 million federal grant in 2019 to complete 200 retrofits over the next three years.
But because of the construction boom and the coronavirus pandemic, the city is far from completing that goal, Pierce said. She estimated only 20 homes have been retrofitted under Fix the Bricks since last year’s temblor.
“COVID was a rough year for us. We didn’t get nearly as many retrofits done as we wanted. We are trying to figure out how to get back on track with our goal. By next year, we have to do the 100 for this year and the ones we didn’t get to last year. We need contractors putting in bids,” Pierce said. “There’s a lot of contractors capable of doing this type of work, but at times when the construction industry is booming, they make more money on other projects so [retrofits] fall to a lower priority.”
In the past, Hills has dedicated two crews to these projects, but the firm has scaled back to one, he said, after his pre-pandemic waitlist of about 20 jobs dwindled to three or four.
He attributed the business slowdown, which came despite a high level of interest in retrofits, to the slow pace of processing Fix the Bricks applications.
“There are thousands of people who don’t want to pay the whole bill and want to wait,” Hills said. “A lot of those people have been contacting me, saying the [Fix the Bricks] list is too long and asking if they can just move ahead.”
It brings ‘peace of mind’
Salt Lake City homeowner Alessandro Rigolon was among those who did not wait. He retrofitted immediately after the quake, paying completely out of pocket.
“It’s pieces of metal drilled into the bricks,” said Rigolon, who has two young children. “It’s not like a new kitchen or a yard or a hot tub, something you get to enjoy. It’s more a peace of mind when you go to bed.”
In 2019, he moved into a historic east-side neighborhood after taking a job teaching in the U.’s urban planning department.
Rigolon may have been new to Utah, but he was hardly new to earthquake country. Having grown up in Italy’s Modena region, Rigolon lived through the series of powerful jolts in 2012. Collapsing structures killed dozens of people.
With his wife, he bought a 1,400-square-foot unreinforced home built in 1921 on Naylor Court. They got on the Fix the Bricks waitlist, but before they could retrofit, the March 18 earthquake hit.
The family immediately looked into retrofitting the house, which was not damaged. Rigolon consulted an engineer who recommended a retrofit in line with what Fix the Bricks covers.
“He said this was not a full retrofit,” Rigolon said. “This will buy you time so you can get out. What matters is for our family to be OK.”
The house might not be salvageable after a big quake, but at least it could be eligible for earthquake insurance. To line up the retrofit, he called three contractors for estimates.
“They were wildly different,” he said. “We went with the one that was cheapest.”
That was Hills Construction, the same contractor who did the Dazets’ retrofit. The cost was about $15,000. Rigolon was able to shave a few thousand by replacing the roof at the same time.
“The first issue is if you are alive. Is the house going to fall on your head?” Rigolon said. “The second issue is are you going to be able to fix your house and live in it again.”
In the end, the couple decided they needed a bigger place and looked for another house in the same neighborhood. They bought a wood-framed home in nearby Sugar House, sold the brick house and moved a few months ago.
“The move was mostly for the bigger house, but I don’t think we would have moved to another brick structure and retrofit again. We moved because we felt that it was safer in the long term,” he said. “Having two kids who depend on you really makes you think more.”