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Alaska rocked by 'quake

BY SUSAN KIM | Anchorage, AK | January 7, 2000

A 6.0 magnitude earthquake rocked southeast Alaska Thursday. No damage or injuries were reported, but the 'quake -- along with aftershocks measuring as high as 4.6 -- was felt strongly by the people who live in fishing villages in that the region.

This earthquake, as well as more devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, has response groups becoming more concerned about earthquake preparedness.

The release of a study about earthquake possibilities in the midwest has further heightened those concerns.

The study, released by the University of Colorado in Boulder, found that a major earthquake focused on the Missouri-Tennessee portion of the New Madrid seismic zone could damage cities and destroy Mississippi River levees.

Scientists debate when and how large an earthquake in the New Madrid zone -- which stretches from Arkansas, through the edge of Missouri and Tennessee, and into Kentucky -- would be, but few doubt that it will occur, said Susan Tubbesing, executive director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

"If the message is getting out to people that there's not going to be an earthquake, that's unfortunate," she said. "We just don't know whether it will be in a few years or few decades."

But recent large earthquakes overseas -- and in Alaska and California -- will heighten awareness for at least a little while, said Gary Patterson, information services director for the Center for Earthquake Research and Information in Memphis.

"When we have major events around the world, there is a huge response (to earthquake preparedness programs)," he said. "People become aware."

A midwest earthquake would be felt for a distance 20 times greater than the same earthquake in California, he added.

"The central U.S. has a lot of hard rock, and earthquake waves travel very efficiently in those rocks," he said.

Even if studies about midwest earthquakes are, at this point, extrapolation, practices in earthquake preparation are making their way east from the more earthquake-savvy west coast.

Preparation can be as small as anchoring cabinets to the walls in a church kitchen, anchoring your computer to your desk, or anchoring water heaters to the wall so they don't slide or rupture, said Jim Beavers, deputy director of the Mid America Earthquake Center.

Larger-scale preparation -- retrofitting entire communities, preparing transportation networks, and mapping potential hazards -- begins with individual awareness and a commitment to be involved, he added.

"(Earthquake awareness) is a cultural change," he said. "It's like seatbelts. Fifteen years ago, people were still buying cars without seatbelts, but nobody would do that today."

Many owners of commercial buildings hesitate to retrofit their property because they will take a loss if they sell it, he said. "The real estate culture doesn't say you're going to get your (retrofitting) money back when you sell it."

Though new buildings may be built to stricter earthquake codes, older downtown areas -- such as Memphis -- that are densely populated are very vulnerable, said Patterson.

But making people aware of their own vulnerability is a constant challenge, he said. "Personally, I haven't seen many incentives for making your house safer in mid America," he said.

But that could change as earthquake prevention partnerships and programs on the west coast are being replicated further east.

In Seattle, with the support of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Project Impact funding the city received in January 1998, people have been increasingly retrofitting their homes to minimize earthquake damage. Project Impact is a FEMA-administered program to help mitigate against the effects of various kinds of disasters.

Through Project Impact, the Boeing Employees Credit Union, working with the Boeing Company, has formed a public-private partnership to promote earthquake prevention.

During a Disaster Saturday held at a Boeing Company facility, residents can enroll in workshops on retrofitting homes and preparing their community. The credit union also has a policy to assist employees with their immediate cash needs after a disaster.

The credit union is working to replicate the earthquake preparedness effort, and also to work toward promoting preparation for other disasters, said Cindy Kartes, business continuity manager for the Boeing Employees Credit Union. "This partnership could also expand internationally," she said.

Seattle also is home to a retrofit program in which homeowners, schools, churches, and others can learn about how to make their dwellings more earthquake-safe.

More than 125,000 older wood-frame homes in Seattle were built before modern seismic building codes and need to be upgraded to further withstand earthquakes, said Roger Faris, who coordinates a "tool library" from which residents can borrow high-end tools such as roto-hammers, epoxy guns, torque wrenches, and air compressors.

To be eligible to use the tool library, residents first enroll in a Well Home program in which they learn how to use the tools to retrofit their homes.

"We get about four dozen people on a typical Saturday," said Faris, "some to check out tools and others just seeking advice."

Faris, who has worked with church groups and other community organizations, also refers people to reputable contractors.

More than 700 homeowners and 120 building professionals have attended the workshops.

Response leaders in the midwest are considering creating such a program in the most earthquake-vulnerable communities.

A series of massive earthquakes jolted the New Madrid zone in 1811 and 1812. The temblors were felt as far away as Boston. Estimates show the magnitude of those quakes was 7.5, but at the time the Missouri-Tennessee area was sparsely populated and so catastrophic damage was avoided.

The new University of Colorado study indicated that, should a similar earthquake strike today, there is a possibility of broken levees along some 150 miles of the river.

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