Lawmakers Ponder Earthquake-Safety Plan in Utah

By Drew Lindsay — November 30, 1994 4 min read

Utah’s last major earthquake struck some four centuries ago, but state lawmakers are mulling over a plan that would earmark $300 million toward preparing schools for the next “big one.”

Shoring up schools must be one of the state’s first steps as it prepares for expected tremors, according to the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, a committee charged with developing earthquake-safety strategies.

The commission’s final report to the legislature included 32 recommendations, but its chairman told lawmakers that structural work on older schools should be one of seven priorities.

Such a move would make Utah only the second state in the country with a statewide earthquake plan that makes protecting schools a top concern, according to civil-engineering experts. California passed such legislation--called the Field Act--in the early 1930’s after an earthquake killed students in Long Beach classrooms.

Despite tight finances for education across the country, more states need to move in this direction, earthquake and building experts argue.

Already, individual school districts in Oregon and the metropolitan areas of Boston; Charles-ton, S.C.; Memphis; St. Louis; and Seattle are working on plans to prepare schools for quakes, said Larry Reaveley, the chairman of the civil-engineering department at the University of Utah and a consultant for many Utah schools.

“This is a national problem,” he said. “If you don’t do something before, your costs afterward are unbelievable.”

The Right Use of Dollars?

With school budgets stretched thin, however, spending on earthquake safety has not always been popular. In Los Angeles, teachers and administrators reportedly balked at using their supply accounts to bolt to the wall bookshelves, televisions, and other hardware following January’s earthquake.

And while building experts believe earthquake safety is a critical need, taxpayers have disagreed at times. In Lake Washington, Wash., outside Seattle, voters rejected a $31.8 million bond issue in a September election that would have paid for capital projects that included nearly $4 million in earthquake improvements.

In Utah, lawmakers will have to decide if the threat of an earthquake merits what could amount to a $500,000-per-school upgrade.

Much of the state’s population is huddled along the Wasatch Range, mountains that sit close to an earthquake fault. Generally, earthquakes strike the area with the same intensity as those in California, but with much less frequency, according to the commission’s report.

Earthquakes that register between 7.0 and 7.5 on the Richter scale--several times greater than the 6.7 magnitude of the quake that struck Northridge, Calif., in January--generally hit Utah every 400 years. It has been 400 years since the last such quake, according to the report, so the next one could come at any time.

A State or District Problem?

Sen. Howard A. Stephenson, the chairman of the education committee of the Utah Senate and the head of the Utah Taxpayers Association, had not seen the commission’s report, but he said in a recent interview that he was not initially troubled by the potential costs for schools.

“I’m wondering just how earth-shattering this $300 million figure really is--if you’ll forgive the pun,” Mr. Stephenson said. He pointed out that the state already spends $130 million a year on capital improvements to schools.

But Sen. Haven J. Barlow, the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee that oversees public education, said that while earthquake improvements are needed, state school aid might be better spent elsewhere. Utah’s classrooms are some of the most crowded in the country, he noted, with some districts resorting to double sessions.

Mr. Barlow suggested the state finance structural improvements only as a last resort.

“School districts have to take the initiative,” he said. “If they can’t handle it, they can come to the state.”

Several districts in Utah are already making earthquake safety a priority. The 69,000-student Jordan district passed a $115 million bond a few years ago, with half the money targeted to replacing three older schools that were earthquake hazards.

The district also surveyed its 75 buildings and found that a third needed some work to make them earthquake safe. Its capital-improvement plan now includes repairs to help schools ride out the shock waves of a major earthquake, said Randal C. Haslam, the district’s architect.

“The building may bend and stretch and be totally worthless afterward,” said Mr. Haslam. “But it will still be standing and lives will be saved, and that’s the goal.”

Utah legislators who draft the state’s earthquake-readiness laws will also face questions of how to enforce them.

In California, it is a felony to ignore earthquake-resistance standards in new school construction, noted Dennis E. Bellet, a principal structural engineer with the California state architect. Although that charge has rarely been brought, he said, school board members do face personal liability if they cannot prove that they have acted on a problem.

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Ponder Earthquake-Safety Plan in Utah