How Utah’s disaster chief is planning for a catastrophic quake and more climate change

In a Q&A, Kris Hamlet, the director of the Utah Division of Emergency Management, explains how Utahns can ready themselves for future emergencies.

Construction workers looks at the rubble from a building after an earthquake Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City. A 5.7-magnitude earthquake has shaken the city and many of its suburbs. The quake sent panicked residents running to the streets, knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and closed the city's airport and its light rail system.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has made it a priority to learn from the state’s COVID-19 response and to use that knowledge to fortify the state against future disasters.

In 2019, Utah health officials assessed that a pandemic flu was their highest concern for a disaster. On March 6, 2020, that worry became a reality when officials announced the first known case of COVID-19 in Utah.

Nearly two weeks later on March 18, Utah’s capital city shook from the massive 5.7 Magna earthquake, forcing the state’s emergency managers to respond to two concurrent disasters. Kris Hamlet, the director of the Utah Division of Emergency Management (DEM), said it was the first time in Utah history that the state Emergency Operations Center — Utah’s disaster management hub — had been put into a “Level 1 — Full Activation.”

And in the last two years, Utah has experienced hurricane-force winds, drought, heat waves and wildfires, some of which have required their own state and local emergency declarations.

The Salt Lake Tribune caught up with Hamlet to see what Utah’s emergency managers have learned from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response and what the state was doing to prepare for the next disaster, whether it be climate change-induced flash flooding or a major quake on the Wasatch Fault.

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tribune: As state officials continue to address the public health emergency, and can now see the toll COVID-19 has had in Utah over the last two years, has pandemic flu been the worst-case scenario?

Hamlet: The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a disaster by definition. It has caused widespread death and suffering and other health, social, and economic impacts that were beyond the state’s resources to respond financially and almost beyond medical resources to respond. It has taken a terrible toll on life with more than 3,700 deaths in Utah, more than any other single disaster in Utah’s history. And it continues to inflict death. Add to that the widespread effects on livelihoods, businesses, supply chain and the economy as a whole.

We saw runs on stores, empty shelves and medical supply shortages. We saw school closures and implementation of online school impacting hundreds of thousands of students. We also saw misinformation, rumors and conspiracy theories all of which added to the overall impacts of the pandemic. Every Utahn could say they have suffered the effects this pandemic has inflicted, either through loss of a loved one, economic hits, social restrictions, or more. It is certainly an overwhelming incident that has dominated most people’s lives for the past two years.

How helpful were the plans Utah had in place for the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Were parts of the response, like combating misinformation and vaccine resistance, unforeseen by planners?

Hamlet: Overall the plans Utah had in place for the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic were very helpful. The planning process established our relationship with other state agencies, such as the Department of Health, and allowed us to talk in the pre-pandemic days about how we would coordinate with each other in a pandemic and any other disaster.

We made planning assumptions that “in the aftermath of an incident, information is usually erroneous, vague, difficult to confirm and contradictory” (according to the Utah Emergency Operations Plan). In our emergency public information plans, we address how to combat misinformation to the greatest extent possible by ensuring the information we disseminate is analyzed and validated, as well as having positions in place to monitor the media and social media for any rumors or misinformation.

While vaccine resistance is not directly addressed in our emergency plans, we did anticipate the public’s willingness to get vaccinated would follow similar trends of all other vaccines currently available and recommended by public health officials.

Rumors and misinformation can negatively impact emergency managers and first responders’ efforts in a disaster. From inaccurate concerns that a larger aftershock would follow the March 2020 Magna earthquake to misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve seen this happen in Utah in just the last two years. How do state emergency managers combat and respond to these messaging challenges?

Hamlet: Dealing with rumors and misinformation is a huge challenge in a disaster. Part of the problem is that, initially, very little information is known about the specific emergency or disaster. It takes time to gather and verify information related to a large-scale emergency or disaster. But at the same time, the key to an effective and appropriate public response to a disaster is providing the public with accurate, factual, and applicable information in a timely manner.

In a disaster, our public information team would activate and operate a Joint Information System (JIS) and Joint Information Center (JIC). The purpose of a JIS/JIC is to gather, verify, coordinate and disseminate emergency public information in a timely manner. The JIS/JIC is the quickest and most reliable way to ensure the public has the correct information.

The public doesn’t see the JIS/JIC in action, however. What the public does see is public officials releasing the latest and most accurate information related to the emergency or disaster. That’s why, during the Magna quake response, we urged people to only look to official sources for their information.

In his One Utah Roadmap, Gov. Spencer Cox made it a priority to “conduct a full review of Utah’s COVID-19 response,” with an eye for preparing for future disasters. What have Utah responders learned from the pandemic response? What could state officials have done differently during this response?

Hamlet: Our initial plan for distributing vaccines included high-risk groups and then different prioritized levels of essential workers. It was going to be hard to justify which workers would receive the vaccine before others because all made a compelling case for deserving to be vaccinated first.

After deep thought and research, we determined to vaccinate the people at highest risk for COVID-19 complications. That basically meant health care workers and people over the age of 85. Then, because the risk of COVID complications closely follows age and certain health conditions, we opened up vaccines to slightly younger populations and people with those conditions. As vaccines were adopted, we continued authorizing younger groups as appropriate.

As in every disaster, communication can always be improved. We’ve built pretty solid communication channels now, not just within the executive branch of state government, but also between state and local government through various communication channels. Communication has improved between the executive and the legislative branches, as well. Gov. Cox has led a number of outreach efforts to the legislative caucuses for some candid discussions.

We now know there are ways to combat the spread and severity of the COVID-19, such as mask-wearing, vaccines and boosters. While vaccines are difficult to store in large quantities for long periods of time, are there supplies the state is starting to stockpile again ahead of future pandemics?

Hamlet: We continue to have conversations about what type of personal protective equipment (PPE) and what quantities need to be stored for future pandemics. This is the first time in a century that Utah hospitals and health departments did not have enough PPE on hand and could not get it through normal ordering channels. The entire globe was in competition for some very scarce resources, such as gloves, masks, gowns, face shields, booties and even hand sanitizer dispensers.

During the pandemic response, the state acquired a warehouse specifically for the storage and distribution of PPE to local health departments and other partners as needed. The warehouse has been doing a fantastic job and will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Climate-related disasters like drought, heat waves and wildfires cost states in the West money and lives every year. Do state emergency planners take climate-related disasters into consideration when planning for a catastrophe in Utah? And how so?

Hamlet: Absolutely. Besides these, we’re also concerned about severe thunderstorms and flash flooding, which we expect to get worse with climate change. Our Risk MAP program and National Flood Insurance Program coordinators work with local governments to help them have the best planning and zoning to mitigate the effects of future flooding events.

Flooding is the most common disaster. Unfortunately, far too many people are shouldering the risk of flooding without even knowing it. There are constant efforts to map Utah’s terrain to have a more accurate idea of flood risk throughout the state. We encourage people to get flood insurance, which is separate from a homeowners policy.

When it comes to drought, there are serious considerations that need to be made about how we obtain and use water in a very dry state. There are considerations for future reservoirs to increase water storage in wet years.

And for wildfires, we encourage communities located in wildland/urban interface areas to plan for evacuation routes and to reduce fuels around properties. People who are recreating outdoors should take care to not cause wildfires through careless campfires, using exploding targets for shooting, parking a hot car on dry grass or by dragging chains when hauling a trailer. Wildfires have been started by all of the above methods, and they all come from a lack of information or from disregard for the results of our actions.

What potential disaster is keeping you up at night? What is Utah doing to prevent or stymie the size of that catastrophe?

Hamlet: For the past couple of decades, if not longer, Utah has considered a major earthquake somewhere on the Wasatch Fault as its most catastrophic disaster. The Wasatch Fault has the potential to produce up to a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, which could produce energy hundreds of times greater than the magnitude 5.7 Magna earthquake.

For a magnitude 7.0 quake on the Wasatch Fault, computer modeling predicts tens of thousands of people killed and injured, thousands of buildings and homes damaged, and infrastructure like power, gas, and water disrupted for several months.

A catastrophic earthquake would certainly overwhelm the state’s resources to respond. It would result in impacts and effects much worse than the pandemic. It would take years to recover from a disaster of that size.

As expected, the state has been working for the past couple of decades on plans, training and exercises for a catastrophic earthquake somewhere along the Wasatch Fault. The Utah Division of Emergency Management is partnering with FEMA to fund emergency management staffing and emergency management practices. DEM is working with FEMA to write catastrophic plans, provide emergency management training, and conduct full-scale exercises.

Finally, what is one thing every Utahn should be doing to prepare for emergencies in 2022?

Hamlet: The answer really depends on the person. Some people have great food storage, but maybe don’t have adequate insurance. Others might have cash on hand, but don’t have sturdy shoes under their bed and a flashlight nearby. Some might have secured their water heater and tall furniture to the wall, but don’t have their important documents stored on a flash drive at another location.

People should do whatever they didn’t do in 2021. They should conduct an assessment of their response and their level of recovery and comfort during the pandemic, earthquake, and windstorm. What items were they lacking? What information did they need? Then they should do the things that will prevent them from having those same experiences again.

Generally, the first thing people should do is learn, practice and teach others the lifesaving protective actions that will help them survive the onset of a disaster. For example, the protective action for an earthquake, our biggest threat for widespread disaster and damage, is Drop, Cover, and Hold on. People need to know what that means and how to do that.

Information about all of this general emergency preparedness can be found at beready.utah.gov. We encourage everyone to apply for Be Ready Utah Recognition at https://beready.utah.gov/recognition/. This program helps people work through a quick assessment of their level of preparedness. Once they have completed all of the steps, they can receive a personalized certificate.

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