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Cottonwood Heights Journal

State and city emergency managers cite key lessons from March earthquake

May 07, 2020 11:16AM ● By Josh Wood

Gov. Gary Herbert and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson in the State Emergency Operations Center on March 18 during the first ever level 1 activation for the 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Magna. (Photo courtesy of Wade Mathews, Utah Division of Emergency Management)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

The Great Utah Shakeout came a month early this year with the real deal. The 5.7 magnitude earthquake that shook the Salt Lake Valley on March 18, and the many aftershocks in the weeks that followed, made all those past community earthquake drills startlingly relevant. The good news was that the March 18 quake was not “the big one” that Utahns have been taught to expect. On the other hand, officials learned that many residents still needed a lot more practice in preparedness.

“It’s given us an opportunity to practice our emergency management process,” said Wade Mathews, Be Ready Utah manager with the Utah Division of Emergency Management. “We were already active for COVID-19, and it’s given us an opportunity. People didn’t quite remember what to do. We want to emphasize the importance of stay where you are, stop, drop and hold on.”

Mathews cited the quake as a great learning opportunity for everyone. In the event of a much larger earthquake, the shaking would likely be too violent for people to run for cover. Even in large aftershocks, the best thing for people to do in the moment is to stay where they are, drop down, and hold on for cover. If an earthquake were to strike when people are in bed, for example, Mathews said the best thing for them to do is to stay in bed and put a pillow over their heads for protective cover.

The March earthquake provided real experience for local emergency personnel to put all their drills into practice. “We’ve got a great, nationally recognized communications group,” said Assistant Emergency Manager Julie Sutch of the Cottonwood Heights Police Department. “They did check in during the first quake. They were right on top of it. We’re fortunate to have the CHARC (Cottonwood Heights Amateur Radio Club) volunteers.”

Cottonwood Heights canceled its annual Shakeout event due to social distancing measures for the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials tentatively plan to hold a drill this fall. Lessons learned from the recent earthquake will help inform their planning.

“The biggest thing that we’ve seen is that it has brought the realization that it could happen,” Sutch said. “That’s probably the biggest takeaway. We’re seeing more people being geared toward preparedness.”

Preparedness is the primary concern for Mathews. From the state level to community organizations to each household, knowing what to do is the top priority. “We’re going to emphasize protective action more with our outreach,” Mathews said. “If we don’t know how to survive the disaster, the rest of our plans don’t matter. We want everyone to be able to survive. That’s why we emphasize protective action so much.”

Protective action during an earthquake includes:

·         Drop to your hands and knees to protect yourself from being knocked down

·         Cover your head and neck with one arm

·         Crawl under a sturdy desk or table if one is nearby

·         If no table or desk is nearby, crawl to an interior wall

·         Stay on your hands and knees, bent over to protect vital organs

·         If you get under a desk or table for shelter, hold on to a leg until the shaking stops

·         If not under shelter, cover your head and neck with both arms

For more tips on earthquake preparedness, visit

The lessons of the recent earthquake, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have provided real reminders of the importance of emergency preparedness. “We want to create a culture of preparedness where we live,” Mathews said. “Knowing the risks of where we live helps us have emergency preparedness plans in place.”