Seismic review under way for schools, despite Legislature's caution

Earthquakes » Schools already looking at possible impact to buildings.
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Utah lawmakers balked once again at legislation to inventory Utah public schools to see how they would weather a strong earthquake.

As an alternative, they plan "to study whether to require a school district or charter school to conduct a seismic evaluation" of its buildings.

But it turns out the state Office of Education is just about ready to hand in this assignment. Finance Director Larry Newton said Monday an earthquake review is "almost done."

"The inventory is happening," he said. "We've been gathering the information for two months. The data is coming in."

Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, said he will press forward on the issue. The demise of his HB72, which passed the house but failed to get before the Senate in the Legislature's final days, followed the wreck of similar efforts in the preceding two years.

"We're getting closer and closer to the inevitable" earthquake, said Wiley, a building inspector. "And the longer we wait, the worse it's going to be."

The Utah Seismic Safety Commission has been pushing for a seismic safety review of schools, too. The panel is behind an assessment of state government buildings that Wiley advocated four years ago.

An informal survey estimates that 58 percent of about 800 school buildings were constructed before modern seismic standards of the mid-1970s. With about 560,000 students in public and charter school buildings and a reasonable likelihood that Utah will face a magnitude-7.5 temblor, a statewide to-do list is urgently needed, earthquake experts say.

Tiffany Starbuck is a Salt Lake County mother who would like to see action on earthquake safety.

"To study whether it warrants a study," she said, "doesn't make sense."

"Our Legislature is more concerned about the abortion issue and sex ed than they are about keeping kids alive in an earthquake," Starbuck added. "This is the time to get going on it."

Marilyn Larsen, safety and welfare commissioner for the state PTA board, praised Wiley and the engineers for continuing work on the bill. She was surprised that lawmakers will proceed with a separate study of seismic requirements for condominium conversions.

"You'd think our schoolchildren would come first," she said.

Meanwhile, Newton noted that schools do remain concerned about how to pay for more in-depth analysis that will be required once the inventory is completed. That engineering "costs money," he said.

"It's an unfunded mandate if the school district does not have the money to do the work," he said.

Newton pointed out that he had worked with Wiley on the bill and the education office supported it.

"We all want the buildings to be as safe as possible," he said.

The Big One in Utah

The Utah Seismic Safety Commission projects that a 7.5-magnitude is coming to Utah. When it does, as many as 7,600 people could be killed, about 500 of them schoolchildren. The loss could reach as much as $18 billion in damage to buildings and to the economy.