Earthquake Country No Matter Where You Live : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Earthquake Country No Matter Where You Live, Experts Say Be Ready

By Claire Moore

Sept. 17  On what should have been a typical sleepy winter morning for the residents of New Madrid, Mo., the ground started to shake and sleeping residents heard a tremendous roaring. As they stumbled out of bed many saw homes, gardens and fields disappearing into cracks in the earth as the land rolled in waves.

Earthquakes were not supposed to happen in the tranquil Mississippi Valley. But the three successive quakes of 1811 and 1812, each believed to have had a magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale, were the second largest the United States has ever seen with damages reported as far east as South Carolina and Boston. In two months they reshaped the face of the area.

The mighty Mississippi River temporarily reversed its flow and permanently altered its course. Islands sank, land rose up and new lakes appeared. This map shows which areas of the country have a known risk of earthquakes. (Source: United States Geological Survey)( Today scientists plan to discuss the New Madrid earthquakes at the first ever six-day National Earthquake Risk Management Conference in Seattle. Members from 26 seismic state boards and committees representing areas from Vermont to Guam see New Madrid as a powerful reminder that earthquakes dont just happen in California.

Looking East Scientists and emergency management officials say they want to draw more attention in particular to the earthquake risks in the central and eastern United States where the population tends to forget that many of them live on or near a fault line, too.

The thing is, an earthquake can happen anywhere and anytime really. We estimate that 44 of the 50 states are at risk, said Patti Sutch, executive director of the Western Seismic State Policy Council, the main sponsor of the conference along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The West gets a lot of attention because it has the most frequent earthquakes, but central states and the East are also at risk and have the potential for disaster. They have older buildings, they often dont have the building codes and the public doesnt have the awareness of many western states. Even some western regions that were once considered low risk for earthquakes have been re-evaluated.

Seattle, for example, is hardly known for its earthquakes. But about two years ago geologists discovered a tremendous earthquake had hit the area in 1700. They found Seattle has a major quake every 400 years or so. The news prompted the citys emergency management officials to renew their earthquake preparedness.

Predictions Schmedictions At first geologists estimated New Madrid experienced huge earthquakes every 200 years or so. But further research showed it was closer to every 1000 years, easing the minds of many New Madrid residents. But, cautions the U.S. Geological Survey, that is not a prediction. Apparently the American government doesnt do earthquakes prediction research anymore.

Ask a seismologist if you can predict an earthquake and they will probably laugh at you (as several did for this story). This months 5.2 magnitude earthquake in the Napa Valley that caused up to $15 million of damage served as a reminder of how hard it is to determine where an earthquake may hit. Even in California, where many of the fault lines are visible at the surface, scientists only now know about the fault line that shifted Sept. 3. Often, seismologists dont discover a fault line until after the earthquake.

We are so far away from ever being able to predict an earthquake that the best we can do right now is minimize possible risks of an earthquake by being prepared, said Bill Ellsworth, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Earthquakes are one of the risks we have to live with. The question is how do we want to live with it.

Different Geographies Thats what the 26 state seismic boards and committees attending the conference hope to address. We know that if there has been an earthquake somewhere that there is a fault line and it will probably happen again, said Dr. Robert Fakundeiny, state geologist for New York, which has a seismic committee that hasnt been active for several years now. For decades geologists have speculated whether a fault line runs down the Hudson Valley, posing a threat to New York. But still, no evidence of anything other than ancient inactive fault lines has been found, he said.

Seismology in New York, he said, can be a challenge in comparison with California. There, frequent smaller earthquakes have helped scientists determine that San Francisco has a 67 percent chance of experiencing a major earthquake of magnitude 8 or higher in the next 30 years.

In the Northeast its harder to find fault lines because they dont run to the surface as in California and tend to be buried deep in the ground. That makes being prepared harder too.

Being Prepared New York City and most major cities in the state do build new buildings with earthquakes in mind because that is part of the building codes now. But I dont think you can say the same for most of the older buildings, he said.

Ideally, said Sutch, every school, daycare center, office and home would secure computers to desks, bolt their bookcases, file cabinets and large mirrors to the walls. All buildings would be built to withstand a major earthquake of 8 or 9 magnitude. And all old buildings would be retrofitted to handle the same intensity. More easily said than done, especially in places like Manhattan and Chicago where earthquakes are generally seen as somebody elses problem. We are a long way from that [ideal] yet. We still have a lot to learn about earthquakes. The state boards and committees are often the frontlines of research and improving our preparedness, but it is also up to local governments to enforce the building codes and up to individuals to take precautions. Its our job to help make people more aware.

And remember: When you feel an earthquake, duck under a desk or sturdy table. Stay away from windows, bookcases, file cabinets, heavy mirrors, hanging plants, and other heavy objects that could fall. Watch out for falling plaster and ceiling tiles. Stay undercover until the shaking stops, and hold onto your cover. If it moves, move with it.  Courtesy of the Los Angeles Fire Department

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2000


I don't normally post earthquake articles, but something hard hit my house this evening that could have been a small quake. Will update my earthquake kit in the morning. Seattle is way over due for the Big one.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2000.

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