At one school, the tiles fell out of the ceiling with such force that the doors nearby were blocked and wouldn’t open without a pry bar.
At another, a wall partially collapsed, leaving the building unstable and likely requiring a full demolition. And at a high school, most of the windows in the third floor library popped out and showered the grass below in thick shards of glass.
That’s just some of the damage that school districts, specifically, are still responding to nearly a month after a 5.7-magnitude earthquake shook the Salt Lake Valley.
While more than 107 public and government buildings were cracked and defaced, the dozen or so schools counted among them have been considered lower priority for repairs because classes are out due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been sort of a double whammy, with the only silver lining being that students weren’t there when the quake happened.
“The state is still assessing all of it,” said Ben Horsley, spokesman for Granite School District, which was hit the hardest of the districts in Salt Lake County. “We have to wait for them because they’re our insurance company.”
The March 18 quake and later aftershocks damaged at least 20 schools in Granite District, which sits closest to the Magna epicenter. That includes the worst impacts at West Lake STEM Junior High, now deemed unsafe to enter, said Clint Mecham, Salt Lake County Emergency Management division chief.
It will have to be entirely retrofitted or torn down and rebuilt. Either way, it would be months or years before the school can be used again, Horsley added.
Even if classes resume this year after the virus outbreak, the students at West Lake will continue with online, distance learning. The school board will decide what will happen in the fall.
At the junior high, there are large cracks throughout the building, compromising the structure, and the ceiling in the front crashed down. Horsley said it’s uninhabitable, but in some ways, it’s lucky it wasn’t worse. The school was remodeled about four years ago to reinforce the walls and roof.
“Frankly, that’s probably what has kept the building up at this point,” he added.
A full rebuild of the West Valley City school would cost about $40 million.
Meanwhile, the district also saw substantial damage at Cyprus High School in Magna. The ceiling came down there, too, the windows shattered in the library, there were significant cracks in the roof and an entire exterior wall lost all of its bricks. The pool, which is 100 years old, was nearly destroyed.
Granite District is already in the process of rebuilding the high school at a new location, down the street on 8400 West. But that won’t be completed until August 2024. In the meantime, the building will be shored up to last another four years. That will cost about $1 million, which Horsley stressed will come from the state and not taxpayers.
Mecham, the emergency management chief, said the overall estimated costs of the earthquake damage will extend beyond $48.5 million for all of the county, which includes “numerous schools.” But he confirmed Granite District was among the worst hit anywhere.
“We’re doing damage assessment across the entire valley,” he said. “We’re sure those numbers are going to increase.”
The coronavirus has obviously caused some slowing in completing those assessments. And county and state buildings that need to be used immediately have been prioritized.
The county now anticipates having final reports by April 22, but repairs may have to wait longer. And if students return before work is done, some classrooms could still be closed off.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces with this,” Mecham said. “And there are numerous schools with damage to fix.”
Here is a list of the schools, by district, and colleges impacted by the earthquake along the Wasatch Front:
• Granite School District
In addition to West Lake and Cyprus, at least 18 other schools were damaged. Most had cosmetic cracks that will not require structural repairs.
• Canyons School District
Most of the buildings did not have extensive damage, but a few saw some exterior and interior cracks, said spokesman Jeff Haney. Those are: Bella Vista Elementary, Copperview Elementary, Midvalley Elementary, Peruvian Park Elementary (which is slated to be rebuilt), Butler Middle, Indian Hills Middle, Mount Jordan Middle and Hillcrest High (which is currently being rebuilt). “The earthquake showed us the reason why we need to have structurally safe buildings,” Haney added.
• Jordan School District
Only one school in the district — Silver Crest Elementary in Herriman — was damaged. Bricks fell off the front façade of the new building, said spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf.
• Salt Lake City School District
The district reported no damage, said spokesman Yándary Chatwin, noting: “We were really lucky that way.” All of the schools have been recently retrofitted to be earthquake safe. Only the district office has not yet been retrofitted, but it also did not see any issues.
• Murray School District
Spokesman Doug Peggy said there was one footlong crack outside Horizon Elementary in Murray that will be easily fixed. “It was cosmetic in nature. It wasn’t part of the structure that we needed to worry about.”
• Monticello Academy
The charter school in West Valley City saw about $100,000 in damage after a fire suppression pipe broke during the quake, said Royce Van Tassell, the executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. It was the most damage that any charter school in the county saw — though others reported needing minor repairs.
• University of Utah
The flagship school’s bookstore closed temporarily after a pipe burst with the earthquake and caused some water damage. The geology building on campus also had some bricks tumble off. There was nothing more serious, said spokesman Chris Nelson.
• Salt Lake Community College
SLCC also saw mostly cosmetic problems, said spokesman Joy Tlou, "plaster cracks and items on shelves falling.” Most of that was at the South City campus.
• Westminster College
No damage was reported, said spokeswoman Arikka Von.