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A new report by the Utah Seismic Safety Commission confirms what many earthquake experts have been saying for years: Too many students are at risk if the "big one" comes while they are in a Utah schoolroom.
Seventy-seven out of 128 Utah school buildings sampled didn't appear to meet federal guidelines for seismic safety and need deeper scrutiny. More than half those worrisome structures are made of unreinforced masonry - bricks and blocks without steel reinforcement bars - that is unlikely to stand up to vigorous shaking.
Barry Welliver, an engineer who helped organize the "sidewalk surveys" in the fall, said the point isn't to pressure leaders headed into the annual legislative session to pony up money to immediately deal with earthquake risk, but rather to prompt a look at all 1,000 school buildings in the state. The new report, Utah Students at Risk: The Earthquake Hazards of School Buildings, is just a starting point, he said as he presented a draft to the expert advisory panel Thursday.
"We're trying to say you can't afford to do nothing," said Welliver, a member of the Structural Engineers Association of Utah, which co-sponsored the report.
"Even if there's one school building in here that has an issue," he added, "somebody has got to do something."
The commission has pushed a measure for the past three legislative sessions that would dedicate $500,000 for doing "rapid visual screening" of all school buildings - an inventory considered vital to creating a plan to begin addressing the seismic shortcomings in the schools.
The bill passed the House in the 2010 Legislature but died in the Senate after it was starved of funding.
"It is hoped that Utah has time to prepare and make its schools stronger before the next large earthquake, but research suggests that such a quake is likely sooner rather than later," the report concludes.
"So the danger to schools should be addressed with urgency but not alarm."
Marilyn Larsen, a longtime safety advocate with the Utah PTA, said her group plans to push the bill "full force" this year. The measure has been requested by Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, but hasn't yet been given a number.
"One child is too many, especially if it's your child," she said.
"The retrofitting of a building will not preclude schools from being harmed," she said. "But it will prevent them from pancaking. This is a huge issue for Utah."
In the past, legislators and state education office officials have said they are wary of developing a comprehensive list of seismically challenged buildings because of the potential liability and the likely high cost.
Indeed, retrofit estimates generated by others are sobering. Oregon projected the cost in one large school district as $3 to $29 per square foot. An estimate by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided $69,000 to do the Utah sidewalk surveys, put the range at $8 to $27 per square foot. Retrofitting a significant number of schools would quickly run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Said Larsen: "There's a lot of ways to find [the money]. We just need to be creative."
Plus, seismic commission members noted on Thursday, there are huge costs to ignoring the problem.
The new report cites stunning estimates from a 2009 FEMA report. A magnitude 7 rupture of the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault would kill up to 2,900 people and injure up to 40,000 more. Damage and other losses could be as high as $37 billion.
Last fall's study in Utah was undertaken with the help of FEMA funding, the seismic commission's moral support and the volunteer efforts of 17 professional engineers.
Welliver noted that the sidewalk surveys had limits because the engineers weren't able to inspect the insides of many buildings, and they suggest that the preliminary review needs to be backed up with more in-depth analysis.
Using a new computerized seismic evaluation tool approved by FEMA, the engineers found:
• Fifty-one of the 128 school buildings were strong enough to withstand a significant temblor.
• Seventy-seven had a 1-in-100 chance of collapsing during the biggest earthquake that is considered likely.
• Ten, in particular, warrant further study because they appeared unlikely to be able to withstand the shaking expected in the sort of strong earthquake expected on the Wasatch Front. The names of those schools weren't included in the draft report.
Roger Evans, chairman of the seismic commission, said he has fielded calls throughout the years from many parents who worry about the risk at their children's schools. He said he urges them to contact local school officials to find out whether the risk has been assessed and addressed.
A comprehensive survey, such as the one the commission is urging, would offer parents a central place to learn the answer to their questions - but only if lawmakers approve the requested schools-wide inventory.
"We've got a problem out there," said Evans, summarizing the message of the preliminary report, "and you [state leaders] need to focus on it."
The how, what and where
How the sidewalk surveys were done • A team of structural engineers chose a representative sampling of Utah schools all over the state and applied the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "Rapid Visual Screening for Potential Seismic Hazards" to size up 128 buildings. It is a nationally accepted scoring tool that takes about 15 to 30 minutes per assessment.
What they found in this preliminary assessment • Fifty of the school buildings were rated as having "adequate seismic resistance." But 77 indicated potential problems that warrant closer study. And 10 buildings appeared "virtually certain," at first glance, to collapse in a major earthquake.
What the experts recommend • Lawmakers should enact a bill that would provide $500,000 to do these sidewalk surveys of nearly 1,000 other school buildings, including those housing charter schools. Then the state should develop a plan to tackle the seismic hazards as funding becomes available.
The rightto be safe
"Children have the right to be safe in school buildings during earthquakes."
Western StatesSeismic Policy Council