U seismologists help pinpoint quake

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

When a 6.0 magnitude earthquake rattled the small town of Wells in northeastern Nevada, various earthquake and public safety departments in Utah, including the U’s Seismograph Stations, responded.

When the earthquake occurred at 7:16 a.m. in the rural town close to the Nevada-Utah border, the three main branches that deal with earthquakes in the state — the Utah Geological Survey, Utah’s Division of Homeland Security and the U Seismograph Stations — kept in constant communication with one another and agencies in Nevada as each received information about the earthquake and its aftermath. Some information included the fact that residents of Utah had felt the early morning earthquake.

“Communication is an animal when it comes to dealing with events like these,” said Col. Keith Squires, director of the Utah Division of Homeland Security. “We have to be as efficient as possible.”

The division checked sections of I-80 in Utah to make sure they had not been damaged. When the earthquake occurred, staff members at the U Seismograph Stations dispersed throughout northwestern Utah to place a portable network of seismometers to record aftershocks. Kristine Pankow, assistant director of the U’s Seismograph Stations, said they recorded about five to 10 aftershocks, two or three of which registered more than a 3.0 magnitude on the Richter scale. Twenty-three major buildings collapsed in Wells, and most surrounding homes received some kind of damage.

“Everyone was absolutely, very surprised,” Elko County Commissioner Charlie Myers said. “It was early morning, so everyone was just getting ready to go to work. I was sitting up on my bed, and it felt like a freight train coming through my house.”

Although there were no reported major injuries, about 23,000 gallons of water flooded the city as pipes throughout Wells broke, Myers said.

However, most agencies in Utah were just warned, not dispatched, because the agencies in Nevada did not ask for Utah’s assistance and had everything under control, said Nicole Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Homeland Security.

Squires said if the earthquake had happened in Utah and the agencies had responded in the same way, they would have received a “B grade,” adding that communication efforts could have been better.

“I think the way to improve is through practice and exercise,” Squires said. “(If an earthquake happened here), people won’t have time to think, so they need a template of how things are going to work.”

Bob Carey, earthquake program manager at the Utah Division of Homeland Security, said the division reworked the state’s response plan earlier last year and has since been “working out the snags.” Regardless, he said the Utah agencies did a “great job,” but that it would have been different had the earthquake happened in Utah.

“It’s low stress when it’s someone else’s earthquake,” Carey said. “If the earthquake would have been here, there would have been a lot of sweaty foreheads.”

Carey said the Nevada earthquake was “a lovely experiment” to see how Utah would have responded to an earthquake of its own, which isn’t an unlikely situation.

Utahns have a one in four chance of experiencing an earthquake higher than 6.0 in their lifetimes, Pankow said.

“It’s hard to say when, but it’s not going to be unusual for Utah,” Pankow said. “Utah is earthquake country.”

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A corner building is damaged on Front Street in the historic district following a 6.0 earthquake in Wells, Nev.