Utah’s seismic renovations are effective, but local schools mostly foot the bill

If there was a silver lining to the 5.7 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Wasatch frontline on March 18, 2020, it was that in-person learning had been suspended in schools due to the COVID-19, leaving buildings empty so that no injuries have occurred.

But the earthquake had significant financial impacts, especially where older schools had not been altered to survive a major earthquake.

The earthquake caused significant damage to West Lake STEM Junior High in West Valley City, which was later considered “a complete loss,” according to the March 2021 Front Wasatch Unreinforced Masonry Reduction Strategy report. The Granite Board of Education recently agreed to an insurance settlement of $ 37.4 million to repair the school.

Two other schools in the Granite District – Granite Park Junior High and Cyprus High – were also damaged. In the Davis School District, Clearfield and Davis Junior High both suffered damage to the expansion joints and the latter damaged the flooring.

Schools in the Jordan, Weber and Tooele school districts also suffered minor and mostly cosmetic damage.

Yet in places like the Salt Lake City School District, which has been modernizing schools for years, no damage has been reported.

The fault zone represents a “ catastrophic ” threat

Seismic risk is significant along the Salt Lake Valley, where the Wasatch Fault “constitutes one of the most catastrophic natural threat scenarios in the United States. The Front Wasatch has a 43% chance of an earthquake of magnitude 6.75 or greater in the next 50 years, and experts predict that such an event would be among the deadliest and costliest disasters in the history of the United States, ”the report says.

The proximity of the fault to a densely populated urban corridor is a major risk factor.

“This danger is compounded by the number of people who live, learn, work, worship or shop in URM (unreinforced masonry) buildings and may not be aware of the potential danger. In addition, those who live in URM buildings often include a disproportionate number of disadvantaged and marginalized populations, ”the report says.

Typically, unreinforced masonry buildings have brick walls with little or no steel rebar. In earthquakes, unreinforced masonry buildings that have not been renovated often collapse inward and outward, “collapsing on people, vehicles, sidewalks or others. structures in and around them, ”the report states.

The Wasatch Front Unreinforced Masonry Reduction Strategy study also notes that some Utah school districts have been upgrading or replacing seismically deficient school buildings for more than two decades.

“Although much has been done, there is a disparity between school districts with significant financial resources and those unable to overcome the major obstacles to dealing with seismically deficient buildings, including the lack of viable funding mechanisms,” he indicates.

The report notes that Utah requires children to attend school, “therefore, the state should be seen as a partner in ensuring that all schools are safe.”

According to the report, to create a harm reduction program for schools, the following goals must be met:

• Validate and finalize the statewide inventory of unreinforced masonry school buildings.

• Meet with individual districts to review inventory and discuss mitigation options.

• Assess building risks and prioritize renovations or mitigation strategies.

• Set a target date for all unreinforced masonry schools to be redeveloped, modernized or demolished within a maximum of 12 years.

• Fund seismic mitigation. Prioritize state and federal funding for school districts that are unable to develop local funding options.

Who pays to be prepared?

Overall, school districts cover the costs of replacing or upgrading schools themselves, although some have secured limited federal grants to carry out the work.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Salt Lake City School District embarked on a comprehensive effort to renovate and rebuild vulnerable schools by spending more than $ 200 million from voter-approved bonds. The initiative expanded to $ 401 million over the next two decades, the report says.

The investment seems to have been cautious. There have been no reports of damage to schools in Salt Lake after the Magna earthquake.

The last two school reconstructions were completed in 2019. The district’s aging administration building is the latest facility to be addressed. The school board has discussed plans for the structure on several occasions, but the matter has been put on hold as the district addresses the impacts of COVID-19, the Salt School District spokesperson said. Lake City, Yándary Zavala Chatwin.

According to the report, the Salt Lake bond issues were approved by voters “because the city and parents of school-aged children saw the effects of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and wanted their schools are safe ”.

The 6.9 magnitude earthquake in the San Francisco area caused 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries and an estimated $ 6 billion in damage, according to National Geographic.

The Murray City School District completed life safety renovations to all of its school buildings ahead of the March 2020 earthquake. The effort began ten years ago using a combination of federal grants and bonding.

The Magna earthquake damaged only one Murray School, a one foot non-structural crack in Horizon Elementary School.

According to John Masek, a licensed structural engineer who served as the project manager for Murray District renovations, there is a significant cost-benefit ratio to seismic mitigation.

“It is often much more cost effective to renovate before an earthquake than to repair or replace buildings after an earthquake has damaged them. Additionally, and more importantly, the seismic modernization helps protect the lives of students and faculty at the facilities, ”Masek said in a press release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Granite chooses to replace rather than repair

The Granite School Board decided that instead of repairing the West Lake STEM Junior High, it would be rebuilt with the $ 37 million from the insurance and emergency bond authority covering the remaining construction costs. , estimated at between $ 10 million and $ 15 million, said communications director Ben Horsley.

Since the start of this school year, Westlake STEM Junior High School in Granite has operated out of the former Westbrook Elementary School in Taylorsville. The elementary school was vacant because the school board voted to close it at the end of 2019.

This school year, some 900 students were bused to the school, which is approximately 8 km from their home campus. Modular classrooms were installed on the elementary school campus and the district made building modifications to accommodate more students and meet the needs of junior high school programs.

For example, elementary schools use multipurpose rooms as dining halls and gymnasiums. Since a high school schedules gymnastics lessons throughout the day, it needs a dedicated space for this purpose. Showers and changing rooms had to be created.

Earlier this month, the school board approved the acquisition of a $ 348,120 relocatable lab building to be installed on the temporary West Lake campus. The district also spent at least $ 3.7 million on site upgrades and the purchase of additional school buses.

Although the insurance settlement would have covered repairs to the 1960s school, it would not cover the costs of upgrading the equipment. Some of these upgrades are made necessary by advances in school technology, but also by changes in school operations and hygiene practices resulting from the pandemic, Horsley said.

Lower secondary was due to be rebuilt in five to ten years, but the school board chose to increase the schedule when interest rates are favorable.

“We hope to do it within an accelerated time frame. This obviously means that everything must go perfectly. But we hope that the students can be in this building in the fall of 2023. If this continues for a few more months, that’s okay, but it’s our goal and we want to have a big, hairy and daring goal and try and do it by then, ”Horsley said.


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About Christopher Easley

Christopher Easley

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