Prepping for the 'big one': How bad could a Utah earthquake be?

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WEST JORDAN — The State of Utah is about to embark on its latest renewal of a grim tradition: preparing for the “big one ” with The Great Utah ShakeOut.

Experts say that preparation is incredibly important to improving the chances of surviving a major earthquake.

Emergency crews regularly prepare for a 7.0-magnitude quake, and they have an idea of how bad the Wasatch Front would look in the event of one.

“I don’t want to scare people, but honestly I look at the pictures from Haiti,” said Bill Brass, project manager of Utah Task Force 1, the state’s urban search and rescue response team that has aided in disasters across the country.

Brass then thinks about his older home in Sugar House, built with un-reinforced masonry, and how it would hold up in a quake like the 7.3-magnitude monster that leveled much of Haiti in 2010.

“Chances are excellent that house will not survive a 7.0 earthquake,” Brass said.

Earthquake preparations you may not have considered
by Jed Boal

Many Utahns already have a 72-hour kit and a good emergency plan for family members in the event of an earthquake. But Joe Dougherty with the Utah Division of Emergency Management suggests some preparations you may not have considered.


If an earthquake rattles the Wasatch Front, you need to communicate with family right away. The best way to do so is to send a text. If everyone tries to call, that can jam up the phone lines.

Household concerns

Have an emergency toilet. You might not be able to use your toilet after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which would likely damage sewer and water lines. Buy a 5-gallon bucket and a special toilet seat lid to snap on top. Line the bucket with a garbage bag and throw in kitty litter between each use to reduce odors.

Secure your water heater. If your water heater gets knocked over in an earthquake and starts a fire, you've got another problem on your hands. Strapping the water heater to the wall will not only prevent a second disaster, but you can also use all the fresh water inside.

Conduct a "home hazard hunt." This means going through your house and identifying heaving things that might fall down in an earthquake, and then finding a way to secure them.


A 72-hour emergency kit for your pet is important. Make sure it includes extra food, an unbreakable bowl, and a spare leash.


Historic streets in Sugar House, the Avenues and other neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley’s northeast corner are lined with those same types of homes.

“We are going to have scores of people trapped, and for long periods of time,” Brass said. “Some of those people we will never be able to get to.”

Brass said a 7.0-magnitude earthquake would likely result in a disruption to water and power that could go on for weeks or longer. The disaster would draw a response from across the country, he said, but even that may not be enough.

“Quite honestly, this is a fact we don’t like to tell a lot of people – there are not enough teams like ours in the nation to sustain Utah in the event of a 7.0 earthquake or greater,” Brass said.

At the University of Utah, seismologist Katherine Whidden said she doesn't believe devastation in the Salt Lake Valley would approach the level it did in Haiti, but she also acknowledged it would be plenty bad.

“The problem we have here is that all the population is right on top of the fault,” Whidden said.

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake would likely create a 5- to 10-foot rift along the responsible fault line.

“There could be a surface rupture – in the middle of the city,” Whidden said.

The Wasatch Fault is divided into 10 segments, and any of those segments could deliver that strong of a quake.

They happen every 300 years, Whidden said, and Utah hasn’t had a 7.0-magnitude earthquake or larger in about 300 years.

“We’re not exactly overdue,” Whidden said. “But we’re about due for a big earthquake.”

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