The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

State, national, world

May 19, 2013

The Big One: Preparing for mid-America quakes

ENID, Okla. — It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee. A quarter of a million people are homeless.

The Memphis airport — the country’s biggest air terminal for packages — goes offline. Major oil and gas pipelines across Tennessee rupture, causing shortages in the Northeast. In Missouri, another 15,000 people are hurt or dead. Cities and towns throughout the central U.S. lose power and water for months. Losses stack up to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Fortunately, this magnitude 7.7 temblor is not real but rather a scenario imagined by the Mid-America Earthquake Center and the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University.

The goal of their 2008 analysis was to plan for a modern recurrence of quakes that happened along the New Madrid fault more than 200 years ago, in 1811 and 1812.

No one alive has experienced a major earthquake in the Midwest, yet geologists say it’s only a matter of time. That puts a lot of uncertainty on disaster officials. Their earthquake precautions — quake-resistant building codes, for example — have never been reality tested. Some question whether enough has been done to strengthen existing buildings, schools and other infrastructure. It is difficult to prepare for a geological catastrophe the public cannot see and has never experienced.

“We mostly react to disasters, and it’s been extremely rare that we get ahead of things,” said Claire Rubin, a disaster response specialist in Arlington, Va. “A lot of hard problems don’t get solved. They get moved around and passed along.”

Steven L. Lueker is among disaster response officials who worry about the New Madrid fault and another fault to the north, in the Wabash Valley. He’s the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County in Southern Illinois, and he rattles off likely impact statistics. One of the most important: The New Madrid fault is expected to generate a large-scale earthquake within the next 50 years.

“I may not be here when it happens,” said Lueker. “Or it may happen while we’re talking. You don’t know.”

When it does happen, Lueker said Mount Vernon, the Jefferson County seat, likely will be a staging area for support flowing into Tennessee and Missouri — unless the Mount Vernon airport itself is too damaged. He doesn’t — can’t — know.

Uncertainty is the maddening aspect of earthquakes. They can’t be predicted, even very big ones. We know they happen frequently along the earth’s tectonic plates. We also know there are no such plates in the central United States, yet that part of the country has had major earthquakes in three zones: the New Madrid fault, which on computer models looks like Harry Potter’s scar slashing across Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee; the Wabash Valley fault in Illinois and Indiana; and the East Tennessee Seismic Zone that runs into Alabama.

These are not like the faults in California, which last had a major earthquake in 1994, when the magnitude 6.7 Northridge temblor killed 57 people and caused $20 billion in damages. The mid-continent faults rupture less often; New Madrid gets the shakes maybe 200 times a year, about a tenth the number in California. And earthquakes in the central United States tend to be smaller. The New Madrid fault appears to have a big rupture every 300 years or so; the Wabash Valley has one perhaps every 500 years.

But when quakes do hit the central United States, geology means they are felt much farther away, because the Earth’s crust in the region does not absorb the shock waves in the way it does in the Western United States.

“The Northridge earthquake was barely felt in Las Vegas, 250 miles away,” said Gary Patterson, director of education and outreach at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis. “Here, a large quake would be felt 1,200 miles away in Canada.”

Not everyone thinks the New Madrid fault will produce another big earthquake. Seth Stein, a geologist at Northwestern University, has argued that the small quakes occurring along the fault are not the kind that suggest the earth is gathering energy for a large one.

“He’s a smart guy,” said Patterson. “But it’s interesting that you have to go 500 miles away from the fault to find a scientist who disagrees with the consensus” that another New Madrid quake is inevitable.

At the same time, Patterson and others concede it is difficult to explain why the faults in the central United States are active at all.

Disaster preparedness officials — encouraged by the federal and state governments — are getting ready for a large quake anyway. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sponsors events like the Great Shake-Out and Earthquakes Mean Business, instructing communities and businesses the protective mantra of, “Drop, Cover and Hold On.”

Disaster officials also collaborate on regional drills. The Mid-America Earthquake Center’s 2008 scenario is one example. Another is the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, a planning agency that represents eight states, which is scheduling a large-scale exercise next year.

Earthquake preparedness is not always widely embraced, however, at least as a matter of policy. Developers in Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., for example, are engaged in a protracted debate over whether to update the local building code to require tougher material standards such as framing clips that help secure a house’s frame to its foundation. Engineers say the costs of including this hardware in homes would be minimal. The developers think otherwise.

What’s not in dispute is the region’s building codes are untested. Almost every state that would be affected by a quake on the New Madrid fault has a building code. But building codes have only been earthquake-oriented for 20 years or so. And there hasn’t been a magnitude 6 or greater earthquake in the area since 1895, when a 6.7 hit in Charleston, Mo.

Even people uninitiated in earthquakes are somewhat prepared, according to FEMA, based on experience with other disasters including tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

That may be true, but earthquakes present their own complications, said Amr S. Elnashai, outgoing director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois. Earthquakes have aftershocks and cause landslides, for example.

For all its planning, said Elnashai, “the Midwest is more aware but it is not better prepared.” There has not been much work to improve and retrofit pipelines, most buildings, or critical facilities like schools, banks and chemical plants.

The region also is unprepared for the politics of response. A large-scale New Madrid earthquake could devastate portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. These states are members of the consortium that is preparing for a major disaster in the Midwest.

The clear problem will be allocating resources. Would Memphis and St. Louis get most of the attention after a major earthquake, while small towns and vast rural areas are just as badly affected?

“For a small community like Marion, Ill., versus a Bloomington, Ind., versus a Paducah, Ky., who gets those resources? Who makes the decision?” said James M. Wilkinson Jr., the consortium’s executive director. The consortium has started to address those questions.

In the end, preparedness only gets us so far, said Lueker, the emergency management director in Jefferson County, Ill. He noted what happened in 2011 on the northeast coast of earthquake-prone Japan, where some who heard sirens going off after a magnitude 9.0 quake still stood and watched an approaching tsunami.

“They’re the best-trained people in the world, and they still died,” he said. “As well trained as those people are, it makes me wonder how well we can be prepared.”

1
Text Only
State, national, world
  • Diamondback.jpg Watonga prison lays off nearly 100 employees

    The Diamondback Correctional Facility has been vacant since 2010, when the state of Arizona opted not to renew its contract with the prison.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo 2 Stories

  • Nepal Everest Avalanc_Hass(1).jpg Avalanche sweeps down Everest, killing at least 12

    The Sherpa guides had gone early in the morning to fix ropes for other climbers when the avalanche hit them at about 6:30 a.m., Nepal Tourism Ministry official Krishna Lamsal said from the base camp where he is monitoring rescue efforts.

    April 18, 2014 2 Photos

  • Sinking ferry web.jpg Transcript shows ferry captain delayed evacuation

    The confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking off southern South Korea was 26, most of bodies found floating in the ocean, the coast guard said. But 48 hours after the sinking the number of deaths was expected to rise sharply with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Obama mug web.jpg Obama: Defending health law good for some Democrats

    For their part, Republicans practically dare Democrats to embrace “Obamacare,” the GOP’s favorite target in most congressional campaigns.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Obama Ukraine web.jpg Obama shows skepticism on Russia in Ukraine

    Obama did not say what additional sanctions might be in the offing if commitments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva do not materialize.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Gay Marriage Oklahoma web.jpg Circuit judge in gay marriage case asks pointed questions

    The two cases are the first to reach an appellate court since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Scott Inman web.jpg Oklahoma House Democratic leader Scott Inman: No time for tax cut

    Inman made the comments a little more than two weeks after as many as 25,000 teachers, administrators and students rallied March 31 at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to restore $200 million in public education funding that has been lost in recent years due to budget cuts.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Minimum wage web.jpg Some workers are excluded from minimum wage, increased or not

    The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says nearly 1.8 million hourly workers were paid below $7.25 last year — about 2 percent of the 76 million Americans earning hourly wages. An additional 1.5 million earned exactly $7.25.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Boston Marathon web.jpg Boston Marathon organizers confident of safe race on Monday

    Security plans include thousands of uniformed police, hundreds of plainclothes officers and about 100 strategically positioned video cameras that will monitor the crowds. Police also strongly discouraged spectators from bringing backpacks.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Airlines helpful fuel web.jpg Why high oil prices actually are good for airlines

    These changes, along with high oil prices, have created an insurmountable roadblock to startup airlines that hope to undercut established carriers.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads