This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
More than 20,000 Utah school students spend their weekdays in buildings that look unlikely to stand up in a major earthquake, according to a newly released list by experts who conducted a preliminary survey last fall.
Among the top-ten structures considered "virtually certain" to collapse with the sort of shaking expected if and when the "big one" hits the Wasatch Fault are Central Davis Junior High School in Layton and Central Elementary in Pleasant Grove. Davis School District buildings make up five of the top 10 on the list.
(An interactive map showing all the questionable schools is online at http://local.sltrib.com/maps/quake-schools/map.html.)
Bryan Turner is skeptical.
"There are so many variables in an earthquake," said Turner, director of the Davis District's architectural and construction services, noting that a lot of seismic upgrades have been completed that don't seem to be accounted for in the "sidewalk surveys," where experts assess the buildings from outside. He worries that the results might "unnecessarily worry people."
But the Utah Seismic Safety Commission and the Structural Engineers Association of Utah insist they aren't trying to cause a panic. They just want to start a serious, long-overdue discussion about the quake-worthiness of the buildings where students spend their schooldays.
"Doing nothing is not an option," said Barry Welliver, one of the structural engineers who worked on the quake assessments.
"What we are talking about here is injury and death."
But funding a more thorough look at Utah schools' earthquake readiness remains a long shot in the Utah Legislature.
Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, has seen his bill to do just that shot down each of the past three years. That, he notes, not long after the Legislature spent $227 million to make the Capitol safer in the event of a quake. Meanwhile, "those kids aren't even going to have a chance."
The report • Their draft report, "Utah Students at Risk: The Earthquake Hazards of School Buildings," was released last week. The commission withheld the scoring sheets and names of individual schools surveyed until The Salt Lake Tribune filed an open-records request to obtain the documents. Next week the data is expected to be posted on the commission's Web page.
In the meantime, The Tribune has created a list of the 77 that appear to fall short of federal risk standards, as well as an online interactive map.
Each of the 128 worksheets details the building scores for a variety of hazard factors, including how the buildings were constructed, how they are laid out, what type of soil lies beneath them and how close they are to the 250-mile long Wasatch Fault. Earthquake experts estimate the "big one" for the fault is a magnitude-7 the same sort of shaking caused by the Haiti temblor just over a year ago.
The scoring was based on a system approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the effort though conducted by structural engineers who volunteered their time was paid for with a FEMA grant to the Utah Department of Homeland Security.
The engineers walked around, took pictures and noted what they saw using FEMA's computerized method.
Among the findings:
• 77 of the 128 buildings appeared to have problems that warrant closer study.
• 36 of the buildings were rated "high" hazard
• 31 appeared to be of "moderate" concern.
Districts respond • Several school districts contacted by The Tribune confirmed what experts expected: Some earthquake upgrades have already been done even though the engineers might not have been able to see them.
One example was Cedar City's Cedar High, constructed in 1963, a dozen years before builders applied updated earthquake codes.
Paul Maggio, who oversees new construction in the Iron County School District, said the original, reinforced concrete structure, was built on concrete pillars that go into the ground as deep as 40 feet.
"I'm not sure if they were aware of that when they did their drive-by evaluation," he said.
While Davis District has five buildings on the top-ten list, Turner, doubts the sidewalk surveys' reliability.
He said an outside engineer completed an inventory of every school building in 2006. Seismic upgrades, he added, were done two decades ago at Clearfield High, Holbrook Elementary and Central Davis Junior, and portions of Taylor Elementary will get attention this summer.
The work includes connecting walls to new roofs to prevent "pan-caking," which is exactly the hazard the engineer who scored Holbrook feared when he or she wrote "pancake potential very high."
"To take care of these things, it's a lot cheaper and easier to tear the building down and start over again, which we don't have the money to do," Turner said.
"Salt Lake School District had the luxury" to rebuild old schools, he added. "They stopped growing. They didn't have to spend all their money providing chairs for new students."
Turner said: "Just because a building is unreinforced masonry, doesn't mean it's going to fall down."
In Utah's Capitol, Wiley is about a week away from once again introducing his bill allocating money for a more thorough earthquake safety survey of schools, and for developing a priority list of improvements. Last year, after the $500,000 appropriation request was stripped out, the measure passed the House only to die in the Senate.
A longtime building inspector for Salt Lake City, he says he remains passionate about the issue, but he still doubts it will pass.
These buildings, said Wiley, need further review as do the other worrisome school buildings that engineers believe are out there, as many as 600.
"Once we have a database, we can start to mitigate" the hazard.
Skeptics • Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, is a builder and member of the state Seismic Safety Commission but sees no need for the legislation. He said construction priorities are the districts' job, not the state's.
"They are trying to assess the need and trying to take care of these needs," said Morley. "I believe it's a responsibility they take very seriously."
That's also the thinking of Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful. "I always ask, 'Is this the proper role for the state school board or is it the proper role of the school district?' "
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, a builder-developer who attended Central Davis Junior High, noted that any building that went up before the 1975 building codes became effective is likely to have problems.
Still, he added: "It's a concern. The last thing we want is for our teachers and our children to be in unsafe conditions."
For Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, there is no question that the districts would benefit from the comprehensive survey that the experts suggest.
"This is about our children's lives," the retired school teacher said, "and you can't put a price tag on that." School earthquake map (top 10) (pdf)