Preparing for next major US earthquake

BY SUSAN KIM | BOULDER | January 7, 2000

Recent small earthquakes that have rattled U.S. communities from Alaska to Maine, combined with their more devastating cousins in Turkey and Taiwan, has produced a growing concern about earthquake preparedness in this country.

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


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


"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


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


"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


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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