Only 1 historic building was lost in Magna earthquake; why experts warn the 'big one' would be worse

Only 1 historic building was lost in Magna earthquake; why experts warn the 'big one' would be worse

(Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News, File)

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — When a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the Wasatch Front last year, it literally hit the heart of Utah history.

The earthquake caused so much damage that the 110-year-old Rio Grande Depot, home of the Utah Division of State History and the state's historic archives, was closed off because the building was deemed unsafe. Even a year later, the building remains mostly closed down due to the damage.

Nearly 150 historic buildings across Salt Lake County were damaged by the earthquake. Of those, just one was severe enough to be torn down, said Chris Merritt, Utah historic preservation officer. But the quake was an important reminder that there are many historic structures and homes at high risk for the day the next major earthquake hits the area.

It's why preservation and geological experts came together Thursday evening to conduct a virtual chat recapping the damage from a year ago and discussing ways to ensure the next big earthquake isn't as destructive — or at least that it's not the worst-case scenario.

"We need to continue having a conversation. … We need to have this conversation more than once a year," Merritt said, as he sat in his Rio Grande Depot office. The wall behind him still has large visible cracks from the earthquake.

"We need to have a concerted, unified and strategic way to save as many of these buildings as we can to help private businesses and homeowners all find ways to preserve these really cool pieces of our past."

The damage recorded a year ago

Following the earthquake on March 18, 2020, the Utah State Historic Preservation Office led reviews of historic buildings across the primary areas likely impacted. That included areas like Magna, near the earthquake's epicenter, as well as Salt Lake City's more historic building locations — like the Hardware district and Liberty Wells neighborhood.

The agency's preliminary report compiled within two weeks of the earthquake identified nearly 145 buildings that were either designated or eligible for historic status that received damage from the earthquake. The list included some well-known structures in the county like the Cathedral of Madeleine, Crane Building, Fisher Manson, Rio Grande Depot, the Salt Lake City-County Building, the Salt Lake Temple, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

The most common damage they came across was to chimneys. Damage at an apartment complex they came across in downtown Salt Lake City was so severe that they alerted outside authorities of the safety risk. Other common damage included cracks in brick or adobe structures. Some of the worst-hit buildings suffered roof collapses, as well.

Damage to the Septimus Sears House in Salt Lake City following the earthquake on March 18, 2020. The damage was so severe that the home, constructed in 1896, was torn down.
Damage to the Septimus Sears House in Salt Lake City following the earthquake on March 18, 2020. The damage was so severe that the home, constructed in 1896, was torn down. (Photo: Utah State Historic Preservation Office)

Only one recognized historic structure wasn't salvageable. Damage at the Septimus Sears House at 1902 S. 400 East in Liberty Wells was so extensive that the homeowner decided to tear it down, Merritt said. The home was constructed in 1896 and was considered one of the oldest remaining homes in the neighborhood.

"This is the story that I don't want to happen," he added. "I don't want to lose any more historic structures."

Ongoing risks to historic buildings

As large as the Magna earthquake was, a bigger earthquake is projected to create far worse damage.

For instance, a document produced by the organization Envision Utah estimated about 60,000 buildings within the four Wasatch Front counties would be destroyed in 7.0 or greater earthquakes; about 95% of those structures were located in Salt Lake County. Another close to 36,000 structures would receive extensive damage.

One of the key reasons for so many structures being at risk is that the large earthquake hazard wasn't really known until the mid-1970s, Envision Utah pointed out. Many buildings prior to that weren't constructed with earthquakes in mind. Salt Lake County is more prone to widespread damage because it's where more homes and businesses are located.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued rea new report on the matter on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. The report Thursday stated there were about 140,000 structures in the state that fit the risk of major damage from an earthquake because the buildings "do not incorporate the reinforcing steel required by modern building codes."

"They encompass a wide variety of buildings, from individual homes, to businesses, to schools and houses of worship," the agency wrote in a statement. "Such structures can more easily succumb to the movement and shaking during an earthquake, posing a threat to building occupants as well as individuals outside in close proximity to the structures."

A damaging Wasatch Front fault zone earthquake would significantly impact the state, the region and the country for years afterward.

–Steve Bowman, geologist with the Utah Geological Survey

That's on top of critical infrastructures like water, gas and petroleum piping and broadband connection in the region. The projections call for billions of dollars in damage costs and even more economic losses.

"A damaging Wasatch Front fault zone earthquake would significantly impact the state, the region and the country for years afterward," said Steve Bowman, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey.

While speakers at the event Thursday acknowledged the ongoing risk for an enviable major earthquake, they also pointed out there are ways to mitigate the impacts of a disastrous earthquake.

"One thing that people really should recognize is that we can prepare for and deal with these hazards," Bowman added. "We shouldn't be scared of them. We just need to recognize them, come together and deal with them."

Finding solutions to save historic buildings, including homes

Salt Lake City's Fix the Bricks, which is in coordination with FEMA, is one the best examples of recent programs geared at retrofitting and rehabbing older homes at risk for severe damage from earthquakes. Experts found that homes that underwent the program fared well even after last year's earthquake.

But it's also a relatively small local program with a growing waitlist. Greg Schultz, a municipal administrator for Magna, said it's a program that needs to be expanded not just to other at-risk communities but to more people, in general, to help rehab more homes faster and lower any impact caused by the next big earthquake.

"We don't believe FEMA knows how big Fix the Bricks needs to be in this state," he argued. "I can tell you on Magna Main Street, I can't point to a building that doesn't need some amount of reinforcement of its fascia to keep it from being damaged or destroyed in the next quake. The other challenge we have out here is a substantial amount of unreinforced masonry residences."

Schultz said it's not just federal money, it's something that the state Legislature could provide additional money for. It's also something that public-private partnerships could help provide funding for.

"We've got to try and pull every lever we can to make sure we try and keep things rolling," he added.

Merritt agreed that it was a program that needed to expand since there are so many buildings at risk, especially in Salt Lake County.

One of the biggest issues standing in the way outside of the long waitlist for Fix the Bricks is that many residents aren't aware their house is at risk for major damage, Schultz said. In addition, many residents also may not be able to afford retrofitting costs.

There have been recent efforts made toward earthquake safety. HB 366, sponsored by Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, was introduced in the legislative session earlier this year. It aimed to require the Utah Seismic Safety Commission to "develop guides and videos for homeowners related to the earthquake-related risks of unreinforced masonry dwellings."

More specifically, it would educate homeowners so they would know if they have an "unreinforced masonry dwelling" and expand information about how to retrofit their home and reduce risks for severe damage or destruction as a result of a major earthquake. The bill failed a House vote, 26-41, earlier this year.

One argument made against the bill ahead of the vote on Feb. 24 was that videos already existed online about how to handle unreinforced masonry dwellings. Collard countered then that if residents didn't know about the problem, they wouldn't seek out the videos.

We need to do something really good, pre-mitigation work. ... The next earthquake could be tomorrow and we can't sit idly by and procrastinate.

–Chris Merritt, Utah historic preservation officer

Collard joined the virtual meeting Thursday to discuss the failed effort. She said many of her colleagues were aware and concerned with the issue "but didn't see the urgency to it." She said residents could just move away but, given the housing shortage and housing affordability problems in the state, many just can't. And if a resident could move, they would just pass the baton to another person who would be at risk for a major earthquake.

"The homes will always be occupied, regardless, and typically these residents don't have the funding to just retrofit their homes, so we know we have to work on that," Collard said, noting that she would bring the issue up again later this year with a bill that could expand Fix the Bricks statewide.

The FEMA report released Thursday offered five recommendations, including new retrofitting programs and amendments to codes.

Earthquake insurance is another thing heavily promoted. While not at the meeting, the Salt Lake County Emergency Management Bureau tweeted Thursday that it's important for people to shop around for quotes on earthquake insurance.

"Most people get a terrible quote the first time and give up," the agency tweeted. "Shop around for earthquake insurance."

While the topic may not seem like an urgent issue at the moment, experts were quick to point out Thursday that nobody knows when "the big one" will strike. All that's known is that historic patterns suggest it's likely going to happen at any time over the course of the next few decades. The Magna earthquake was a reminder of the unpredictability of the situation.

But that also leaves an unknown timeframe to complete retrofitting to lessen the impact of a major earthquake. That's why experts argued it's important to get to work on as many buildings as possible now, rather than wait.

"We need to do something really good, pre-mitigation work," Merritt said. "The next earthquake could be tomorrow, and we can't sit idly by and procrastinate."


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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for


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