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Utah Seismic Safety Commission celebrates 25-year anniversary in wake of California quake

FILE - Damaged pavement from an earthquake surrounds the Searle Valley Domestic Water company in Trona, Calif., on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. James Quigg, Associated Press
FILE - Ivan Wong, lead author on a new report concerning probabilities of earthquakes along the Wasatch Front, speaks during the quarterly meeting of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 18, 2016. Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY โ€” The Utah Legislature was in session on Jan. 17, 1994, when a magnitude 6.7 earthquake hit the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles County in California.

Walter Arabasz, former chairman of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, said the devastation the California earthquake caused called attention to Utah's own seismic preparedness.

"There had been, over a number of years, frustration with failures to move forward legislation either creating the commission or with other seismic safety initiatives," he said, adding that at the time of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, "it was getting close to year five of a long series of frustrations and failures (for seismic safety advocates)."

Arabasz said "the currents of the Northridge earthquake in Southern California, in terms of earthquake awareness and motivation for action, seem to have been influential."

Utah lawmakers took action with a bill that created the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, a 15-member independent board tasked with advising the public and private sector on matters concerning seismic preparedness.

Coincidentally, the commission's 25th anniversary falls less than a week after two earthquakes hit the same region of California, causing many Utahns to again rethink their own seismic preparedness.

Audrey Pierce, program manager for Fix the Bricks, an initiative that utilizes federal dollars to retrofit unreinforced masonry buildings, said her program received an additional 100 applicants within 24 hours of the recent California earthquakes.

A celebration for the commission's 25th anniversary took place in the Capitol's rotunda Thursday morning. Individuals in attendance received information on emergency preparedness, safety planning, brick home retrofits and tours of the Capitol's own seismic reinforcement structures completed in 2004.

"I live in town and I do have a brick house, so I was just wondering, 'Man, what can I do before an earthquake?'" said Eugenia Bereshnyi, who took home a number of brochures on home retrofitting, which she hope to consult and distribute to her neighbors.

Ramona Goodwin, who works at in the insurance department at the Capitol, said she's had a safety kit at home for about 25 years. "We have, like the bags, for all members of the family and in our car and at work โ€” our work provides a bag for us," she said.

Goodwin said one of the things she is preparing for is what officials have determined to be Utah's most likely disaster. "I know it's going to happen. We live on a fault line," she said.

FILE - Ivan Wong, lead author on a new report concerning probabilities of earthquakes along the Wasatch Front, speaks during the quarterly meeting of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 18, 2016.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

FILE - Ivan Wong, lead author on a new report concerning probabilities of earthquakes along the Wasatch Front, speaks during the quarterly meeting of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 18, 2016.

While many of the event's initiatives focused on educating the public, a Utah Seismic Safety Commission meeting, held prior to the event, discussed plans for an upcoming national Federal Emergency Management Agency exercise that would involve the state's public safety officials.

"The purpose of the national level exercises is basically what (to) expect (in an emergency), to be sure you know that our local, state and federal agencies are ready to respond to catastrophic events," said FEMA external affairs representative Lynn Kimbrough.

She noted that the exercise is a way to bring state and federal emergency management officials together. "We want to be sure that we're all prepared to work together and the best way to do that is to practice together," Kimbrough said.

Though precise circumstances and an exact date have yet to be determined, officials expect the exercise to take place sometime in spring 2021. Kimbrough said the public is typically not directly involved in these exercises, but Utah residents might expect to see effects of some parts of the simulation.

For example, past exercises in other parts of the country, she said, saw search and rescue teams dispatched to a collapsed building to look for survivors โ€” in that case, mannequins.

"One of the reasons it will be great to do this exercise in Utah in 2021, is that there has been a lot of work done very recently on updating the response plan," Kimbrough said, noting that "it's great to have a plan but it's just a piece of paper until you do something with it."

"The opportunity to test that plan, in this exercise in 2021, will be invaluable," she said.

The commission's 25th anniversary was an attraction both for residents and those from out of state who were touring the building. Maralin Hoff, Utah's "Earthquake Lady," showed residents examples of emergency kits for the whole family and family pets.

Hoff, who has been a community outreach specialist at the Utah Department of Public Safety for 24 years, said she received her title as "Earthquake Lady" after speaking at a Richfield elementary school in 1995.

"I demonstrated an earthquake with a dollhouse with the real sound of the California earthquake, and after I was finished, I showed the kids how they can protect themselves."

The children, she said, were so impressed that they thanked her with cards "with broken windows and chairs knocked down and they had 'Earthquake Lady' (written) across the roof of the house."

Hoff said with all her learning she's prepared, and her home is prepared, so if an earthquake hits she can "go out and help others."