"I like to think of the faults as alarm clocks," said Bill Lund, a senior scientist with the Utah Geological Survey. "Eventually, they're all going to ring. Utah is earthquake country."
And Utah is still unprepared to handle such a catastrophe, according to scientists of the Seismological Society of America, who held a town hall meeting at the downtown Radisson hotel Wednesday night.
The panel estimates a loss of $24.9 billion in lost economy from destroyed buildings, as well as between 1,400 and 1,900 fatalities, when "the big one" finally hits.
As 75 percent of Utah's population lives along the mountains, a large-scale earthquake would affect far more than it is prepared to handle. Salt Lake City's heavy concentration of brick buildings and increasingly urbanized residency makes it especially vulnerable to property destruction.
Schools, said structural engineer Barry Welliver, are highly vulnerable. More than 500 brick schools in the Salt Lake Valley were built before an earthquake reinforcement building code in 1975.
"The three little pigs," Welliver said, "didn't live in earthquake country."
Utahns, however, do.
According to the scientists, the earthquake history in Utah is fairly predictable. Since antiquity, large-scale earthquakes of 7.5 or greater have ruptured the Wasatch fault every 300 years. The Salt Lake area has a large earthquake every 1,300 years, the most recent 1,400 years ago. Walter Arabasz, a University of Utah professor emeritus, stressed the likelihood of a massive earthquake is roughly the same as the risk of heart disease.
Though city and state governments have enacted measures toward emergency preparedness, the panel is worried. Any earthquake-proof buildings or emergency responses have not been tested yet. They insist individual action will be key.
"Our vulnerability is increasing every year," Arabasz said. "Invariably, there's a terrible price to pay. We need to build resilient communities and take common sense measures."
Among other recommendations are storing food and water, keeping emergency medical kits, and having clearly defined plans of exit in the event of an earthquake. The seismologists have undertaken extensive planning for emergency response to be tested April 18.