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More big quakes in 2004?

A series of major earthquakes shook the earth in December 2003, and now in the New Year, but scientists say the frequency is just coincidental.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 2, 2004

"Earthquakes in places that aren't populated never seem to capture media attention."

—John Minsch

A series of major earthquakes shook the earth in December 2003, and now in the New Year, but scientists say the frequency is just coincidental.

News reports might have the public concerned that “the big one” is just around the corner – or at least a rattling future.

Yesterday a 5.7 quake sent people fleeing into the streets of Mexico City.

On Dec. 27, a 7.3-magnitude temblor hit southeast of the Loyalty Islands (a sparsely populated area about 1,000 miles east of Australia).

The day before that, a 6.6 earthquake in southeast Iran killed an estimated 40,000 people. The week before that – on Dec. 22 – a 6.5 jolt in the U.S. killed two people in Paso Robles, Calif.

Earlier in December, a 6.8 earthquake hit Taiwan on Dec. 10, and on Dec. 9 a rare 4.5 quake hit the state of Virginia.

And that's the short list of only the big quakes.

Is there any way these could be connected?

No, answered John Minsch, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.

The recent spate of quakes is just coincidence, said Minsch. "They're not even on the same fault line. There are just periods of time when they all seem to happen at once," he said.

And sometimes that's a matter of public perception, he added. "Earthquakes in places that aren't populated never seem to capture media attention."

The Loyalty Islands quake is a case in point. Though a large magnitude – 7.3 – the temblor struck in a remote area that's simply off the radar screen for most media outlets aside from scholarly publications that excite geophysicists.

Does the spate of recent earthquakes give any indication the world is on the brink of an even bigger one?

No again, said Mensch. "Clusters of earthquakes offer no indication or prediction of what will happen."

Though scientists can crunch numbers and offer statistics and probabilities regarding upcoming earthquakes, "that doesn't give you a whole lot," admitted Mensch, "in that we can't say when and how big."

But even loose statistics – such as the probability that an earthquake 6.0 or higher will strike a certain area – can help the public be more aware, he said. "Scientists can certainly tell what areas need to be more prepared."

Recent earthquakes have brought before the public eye the stark reality that earthquake preparation on a global level is severely lacking.

While the New Year's Day 5.7 quake in Mexico City did little more than make vacationers temporarily flee Acapulco's ocean-side hotels, the 6.6 quake in Iran brought such calamitous loss of life that disaster responders said it reached "biblical proportions."

The Iran earthquake is that country's worst disaster in 13 years. Bam was home to some 103,000 people. Some 90 percent of the mud-brick buildings were either destroyed or damaged by the pre-dawn December 26 quake.

Both Iranian government officials and foreign experts have already said poor design, primitive materials and widely ignored building codes were the prime causes of the high death rate.

The high death rate is a stark contrast to the similar magnitude quake in California that killed two people. The two quakes had not only a similar magnitude, but also similar depths of about 10 miles below ground as well.

The deaths in California were both attributed to the collapse of a clock tower that dated back to the 1800s - a structure that obviously did not meet current building codes.

In Iran, a Tehran University report indicated that there are building codes in the country but that they are not followed, that safety laws are only "in theory," and that no authority controls construction.

The Iranian government, meanwhile, has promised "an inquiry."

Earthquake mitigation can make a huge difference in terms of loss of life. A tremor measuring 8.0 caused 500 injuries and no deaths in Japan in September.

Earthquake damage – more varied than damaged caused by many other disasters – can include collapsed buildings and bridges; disrupted gas, electric and phone service; landslides and avalanches; flash floods; fires; and huge, destructive ocean waves known as tsunamis.

Buildings with foundations resting on unconsolidated landfill, old waterways or other unstable soil are most at risk. And buildings or trailers and manufactured homes not tied to a reinforced foundation anchored to the ground are also at risk since they can be shaken off their mountings during an earthquake.

And Iran's mud-brick homes were particularly vulnerable. Low-priced and popular, they were cool in summer and warm in winter. But they crumbled easily, suffocating many people who survived the actual quake.

Earthquake preparation steps are not all tied to building codes. At least some residents can take small measure to prepare and protect their families by picking "safe places" in each room of their home.

A safe place could be under a sturdy table or desk or against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases or tall furniture that could fall. The shorter the distance to move to safety, the less like someone is to be injured. Injury statistics show that people moving as little as 10 feet during an earthquake are most likely to be injured.

Earthquake experts also urge people to pick safe places in their office, school and other buildings they may frequent.

During a quake, people can also reduce the likelihood of injury by dropping under a sturdy desk or table and, holding on to one leg of the table or desk, protect their eyes by keeping their head down.

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