Commentary: National earthquake program is vital to Utah

The earthquake threat in Utah is real. The chance of one or more large earthquakes of magnitude 6.75 or greater in the Wasatch Front region in the next 50 years is 43 percent, according to a 2016 report produced by a team of seismic hazard experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Utah, the Utah Geological Survey and others.

More than 80 percent of Utah’s population and 75 percent of its economy is concentrated in an urban corridor that sits astride the five most active segments of the Wasatch fault. A 2015 report developed by the Utah Chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute estimates that a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the fault’s Salt Lake City segment will have an economic impact of more than $33 billion.

Defensive actions against Utah’s earthquake threat have long relied on federal-state collaboration between the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and the Utah Earthquake Program―a partnership that unites diverse professional groups working cooperatively to reduce earthquake losses and risk.The Utah Seismic Safety Commission and three closely intertwined state entities, the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, the Utah Division of Emergency Management, and the Utah Geological Survey, are the public face of the program. Importantly, virtually all the participants in the Utah Earthquake Program rely on NEHRP.

A bipartisan bill introduced September 6 in Congress by California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski would reauthorize NEHRP to support wide-ranging endeavors to deal with the nation’s earthquake threat — but the bill needs champions from all earthquake-prone states.

The NEHRP program coordinates the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey as they work with state and local partners to advance national earthquake resilience. It offers a unique framework where research, earthquake monitoring, seismic hazard mapping, building code recommendations, and emergency planning come together to serve the nation in a unified, efficient and up-to-date way, rather than through a piecemeal approach.

The economic stakes are high. In a 2017 analysis, FEMA estimates that the annualized value of long-term earthquake losses to the nation’s building stock is $6.1 billion per year, with much larger economic losses expected overall. The earthquake vulnerability is national, affecting the safety of more than 143 million people in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. For perspective, the total NEHRP budget request for fiscal year 2017 is $138.9 million, less than 3 percent of FEMA’s 2017 estimate for annualized building stock losses.

The catastrophic great Alaska earthquake of 1964 and the disastrous San Fernando, Calif., earthquake of 1971 motivated Congress to create NEHRP in 1977. One key program ― which has greatly benefited Utah ― is the Advanced National Seismic System, designed to place more than 7000 modern seismographs, along with robust communication networks and trained personnel around the country. The multipurpose system provides real-time earthquake information and is enabling earthquake early warning in selected metropolitan areas. Among many other things, NEHRP also supports advances in earthquake engineering through programs such as NIST’s Earthquake Risk Reduction in Buildings and Infrastructure Program, aimed at improving building safety and disaster resilience.

Congressional reauthorization of NEHRP is crucial for the full implementation of its ongoing programs and to enable its continued effective partnering with states such as Utah. Losing the program would dramatically weaken the ability of earthquake scientists, engineers, emergency managers and dedicated professionals to help endangered communities throughout the nation withstand, respond to, and recover from inevitable earthquakes. This vital program must get Utah’s support as it makes its way through Congress this year.

Walter J. Arabasz is research professor emeritus of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. M. Leon Berrett is the chair of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission and associate director of operations for Salt Lake County Public Works. Keith Koper is professor of geophysics at the University of Utah and director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations. Peter Shearer is a professor of geophysics at U.C. San Diego and president-elect of the Seismological Society of America.