How this ‘earthquake nut’ prompted one Utah school district to make all of its buildings safer

Father of five daughters worried about them attending classes in the old East High building.

(Lynn R. Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Standing on the roof of the new East High School, then-principal Kay Peterson, framed in the window on left, watches as crews demolish the west wall of the old school in August 1996. The school was one of the first in Salt Lake City School District to be rebuilt to be seismically safe.

When Jon Dibble first brought up his concerns about seismic safety at Salt Lake City schools, one of the district’s board members quickly dismissed him as “some kind of earthquake nut.”

“It was during this public meeting,” Dibble recalled with a laugh. “I’d gone up to talk during the open mic portion, and they just started calling me all sorts of names and acting like I was a crazy doomsayer.”

That was in 1983, when Dibble said not a lot of Utahns were thinking about preparing for an earthquake. But it was top of mind for the father with five daughters attending classes in the district.

Dibble had recently attended a parent-teacher night for one of his girls at the old East High building. The event was in the basement of what was then four stories of unreinforced brick, meaning there was no steel supporting the structure, completed in 1914. And Dibble said he had a terrible feeling sitting down there, like any kind of shaking would knock down the school like it was a tower of toy blocks.

He worried teachers and students — including his girls — could be buried.

[Read more: State leaders have known for decades that Utah kids could die in unsafe schools during an earthquake.]

So Dibble started pushing for the district to assess its buildings and make upgrades where needed. He formed committees and publicized the results of seismic studies in the district and urged more parents to get involved. He got bumper stickers printed. And he knocked on doors. He even threatened to sue at one point.

He jokes that he may have become a little overzealous, after all.

In the end, though, he’s largely credited with catalyzing Salt Lake City School District to address all 40 of its school buildings with either retrofits or rebuilds to make them safe during an earthquake.

The district became the first in the state to do so. And it is now considered one of the safest in the nation.

“That was the motivation to go to that first school board meeting,” Dibble said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jon Dibble in his food and water storage area in 2010.

After years of work, the district finished updates to make every school earthquake-resistant in 2012. And then, in the fall of 2019, it completed rebuilds of the last two that had to be demolished — Edison Elementary and Meadowlark Elementary.

District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said the only building that remains now on the list is the district’s office, at 440 E. 100 South. The board of education has reviewed blueprints for a rebuild of that structure, and the hope is that construction, which has been delayed slightly by the pandemic, will start sometime this year.

The efforts make Salt Lake City School District stand out in Utah, where there has been little direction or funding from state leaders to improve K-12 seismic safety, even as seismologists warn a major earthquake will rattle Utah at some point along the more than 217 miles of fault lines here.

Chatwin said it wasn’t easy for Salt Lake City, which has one of the most diverse student bodies in the state, to come up with the money. And because of the cost, about $500 million total for the upgrades, it ended up taking the district 25 years to get the fixes done.

It was able to pay for the work with two voter-approved bonds — passed in 1993 and 1999 — and also through saving funds.

Divya Chandrasekhar, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of City and Metropolitan Planning, says improving seismic safety shouldn’t be left to districts to figure out. She’d like to see the state step up.

“School districts often have so many competing priorities, it’s hard to know what to spend the money on,” she said. “With earthquakes, though, you’re sitting on something that could kill a lot of your student body. It’s a silent threat. And we all have to make that a priority.”

Salt Lake City’s focus has paid off. When the magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck Magna a year ago, the district was the only one in Salt Lake County to report no damages.

Neighboring Canyons, Murray and Jordan — which also have prioritized seismic safety — had some cracks and crumbling veneers. Granite School District sustained the most, with West Lake STEM Junior High ending up being condemned.

Though students were not in the classroom that day because of the pandemic, there were some school staff there, Chatwin added. “It was definitely reassuring,” she said, “to know those school buildings were considered seismically safe.”

The big wake-up call for Salt Lake City, Dibble recalled, was when San Francisco was hit by an earthquake during the World Series in 1989 — six years after his first school board meeting.

He was sitting in another school board meeting that night, he recalled, and the secretary wheeled in a TV playing the news. The board members looked at live footage of the collapsed freeway in California.

“I said, ‘That’s East High. That’s what’s going to happen at Highland High School,’” Dibble said.

The district assessed both buildings and found that they were “high life hazardous structures.” About 50% of students were estimated to die if a magnitude 6 or larger tremor shook the ground.

The district began by tearing down and rebuilding East High in 1996.

Two of Dibble’s five daughters graduated after taking classes in the old building. Two more finished high school while the new one was being constructed. And his youngest daughter finished her senior year in the new school.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High pictured on Thursday, May 1, 2014.