SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly six months after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake shook the Wasatch Front, some residents and business owners are still working to pick up the pieces of their lives — and their homes.
The earthquake struck on March 18, its epicenter just north of Magna, and was followed by dozens of smaller aftershocks. It was the largest earthquake Utah’s experienced in decades and came in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only served to exacerbate the difficulty of rebuilding.
Even months after the disaster, the damage is still evident while walking through Magna, according to Greg Schulz, a town administrator.
In response to the earthquake, President Donald Trump issued a Major Disaster Declaration on July 9, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has since distributed $480,890 in grant money to help residents repair and rebuild, according to Joe Dougherty, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety.
It is the first time in state history that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered Utah residents financial aid under its Individual Assistance Program, he said.
The application period for the federal money ends Tuesday.
So far, 542 applications have been approved and more are still being processed, according to Dougherty. Additionally, the U.S. Small Business Administration has approved 43 homes for low-interest loans that total $835,800, as well as one business which received $4,900, he said.
Yet even those figures could be a far cry from the actual monetary damage incurred by Utah’s private sector. Estimating total costs when not everyone applies for aid and when that aid doesn’t cover certain expenses, such as broken dishes or damaged household appliances, is difficult.
“Really, all we’ll really be able to tell you is not how much damage we had but how much money has been approved for homeowners right now,” Dougherty said.
Government officials have a better idea of the financial toll on public infrastructure, which is currently estimated around $100 million, according to Dougherty. But unlike individual Utahns, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not providing relief for Utah’s public sector.
This is partially a function of just how prepared Utah’s government was for an earthquake.
Much of the state’s public infrastructure is well insured against earthquakes — a natural precaution for a state with a fault line running through it, according to Dougherty. But such precautions lower the chances of Utah receiving federal aid.
“FEMA cannot reimburse — like, by law — they can’t reimburse a state for damages if the state had insurance for those damages, right? Because then the state would be getting a double payment,” Dougherty said.
Accordingly, Utah was denied federal aid on July 17. However, the state appealed the decision on Aug. 15, asking for hazard mitigation assistance, which would allow the government to rebuild damaged buildings in a more fortified manner. Government officials also think uninsured buildings may have taken more damage than initially reported.
“We are asking for a deeper dive to figure out if there are damages that weren’t covered by insurance that could be covered by the federal government,” Dougherty said.
If public assistance is granted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse eligible expenses at a rate of 75%, and state and local governments will be responsible for the rest of the costs.
Regardless of the federal government’s decision — which should come in the next month or so — Dougherty is grateful for their efforts.
“FEMA has to work under certain guidelines, and we’ve always appreciated the work that they’ve done in our state. Because what FEMA is doing is representing the help of the rest of the American people, because those are taxpayers’ dollars. It’s like, ‘Hey, Utah had the disaster this time? How can the American people help?’ FEMA is the agent for making that help happen.”
An earthquake during a pandemic
“The night before the earthquake, my brother Charlie and I were talking about how lucky we were that we had a product during the virus that was still sought out and still wanted and still bought,” said Danny Colosimo, who is part of the family that runs Colosimo’s Original Standard Market & Sausage Factory in Magna. “Then we get up the next morning, and the earthquake hit, and we just looked at each other” in shock.
Schulz said several businesses in Magna have had to close because of the tumultuous events of 2020. If COVID-19 was an unforeseen difficulty, then the earthquake was the “dagger” for many businesses.
“I hate to say the die was cast, where there was no way to recover, so they moved on,” he said.
Still, others have managed to keep going, working through both crises by modifying the way they do business, at least temporarily.
Colosimo’s sausage factory and store, which has been open for decades, hasn’t let the earthquake keep it down.
“We really never stopped,” Colosimo said. “We had some wholesale work that we had to do, and we kept producing for people who would literally come to the back door and want sausage.”
The store sustained significant damage during the initial quake, and the owners had to receive county approval before letting customers back inside. They paid the cost for repairs out of pocket, which totaled tens of thousands of dollars. As far as Colosimo knows, their application for federal money is still being looked at.
The Magna community was supportive throughout the crisis, however, and Colosimo said several people called and offered money, and another individual even tried to start a GoFundMe page for the store.
“When they called they cared more about our safety than they did when we would be able to produce more,” he said, “which is worth all the money in the world.”
Residents of Magna may receive another financial boost in the coming weeks as the community pursues a listing to the National Register of Historical Places, an effort which was spurred by the earthquake, according to Schulz.
“Magna just has such a great history; they have such a great stock of historic buildings, that it was kind of shock that none of that had really been listed on the national register before, with the exception of The Empress Theatre on Main Street,” said Christopher Merritt, a state historic preservation officer with the Utah Division of State History.
With the structural damage the town sustained, Merritt hopes the community can rebuild in such a way that maintains a sense of history.
There are currently around 1,400 buildings and 50 historic districts in the state. Being on the register comes with financial perks that could aid a community trying to rebuild, according to Merritt.
“Once it’s listed, every property that is identified as significant is eligible now for a tax credit, so that is a blanket versus each business owner trying to list their own personal business,” he said.
The Magna Town Council will review the proposal in the coming weeks, then a Utah Division of State History board will review it, and finally it will be passed to the U.S. National Park Service for approval.
“We had a lot of damage in the earthquake, but there was a lot of opportunity. And Magna in particular has really seized upon that as a way to put their arms around their cool history, their cool building stock,” Merritt said. “Which is so cool that we’re taking this sad event with lots of property damage but being able to turn it into something very positive for that community.”
As it turns out, two negatives may actually equal a positive. And an earthquake during COVID-19 could have a silver lining. While the pandemic has slowed construction efforts somewhat, according to Schulz, it may have protected people during the earthquake itself.
“This earthquake happened at 7:09 on a Tuesday morning, right? At 7:09, it is really possible to have a lot of kids at school, but because every school was shut down, you had kids at home instead,” Dougherty said. “And so for us, that was very fortunate.”
Preparing for future earthquakes
One certainty about life on the Wasatch Fault is tectonic activity.
Utah experiences hundreds of earthquakes a year, according to Dougherty. Though tremors as large as the earthquake in March are rare, even greater ones could be building beneath the surface.
“Utah has the potential for something upwards of 7.0, that’s what the Wasatch Fault is capable of producing,” he said. “The shaking from that would be so much more intense, there would be so much more damage. And that’s why that individual responsibility, that individual preparedness, is so critical to our state.”
He hopes the earthquake in March acts as a wake-up call for residents of the Beehive State. And since Utah doesn’t have any state assistance programs for such disasters, personal responsibility is paramount.
“We can start building those really good habits of preparedness so that we are ready to act appropriately when the next earthquake happens,” Dougherty said. “And notice I said not if, when the next earthquake happens.”
He recommends doing a few simple things to start preparing for an earthquake.
First is keeping a flashlight and a pair of shoes by your bed. He said people often cut their feet during an earthquake by stepping on shattered glass. Keeping water and food storages in your house as well as an emergency kit stocked with needed medications is also a good idea.
Additionally, he asked people to text loved ones before calling during an emergency situation, as doing so takes up less bandwidth.
Perhaps most importantly, he emphasized the importance of getting earthquake insurance. Similar to how the state has been able to rebuild without burdening Utahns and without the federal government’s money, personal insurance policies give individuals self-reliance.
“I will always have earthquake insurance, and I will tell all of my friends to have earthquake insurance,” he said. “And some of them have started buying policies because I am willing to go tell them about the peace of mind and the safety that my family feels if an earthquake destroys my home.”