Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 7, 2013

Everybody, get on the floor, let’s dance! Don’t fight the feelin’, give yourself a chance! Shake, shake, shake…

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on February 7, 2013

More from United States Geological Survey

Earthquakes are precisely unpredictable.  But they can be anticipated with considerable accuracy.

We don’t know exactly when and where the New Madrid fault will shift.  But most (though not all) argue continuing tectonic movements will eventually produce a geologic snap, crackle, and pop.   The last time a major shift began (December 16, 1811) the earthquake is estimated to have been in the upper 7s or low 8s on the Richter Scale.  Here’s how the naturalist and artist John James Audubon described it from 200 miles west of the epicenter.

Never had I witnessed anything like this before, though I had heard of earthquakes. I found myself rocking on my horse and I moved to and fro with him like a child in a cradle, expecting the ground to open at any moment and reveal an abyss to engulf me and all around me. The fearful convulsion lasted only minutes, however. Almost every day or night for weeks shock succeeded shock, but gradually diminished into more vibrations of the earth. The quake ceased, but not until after it had caused serious consequences in other neighboring places, rending the earth and sinking islands.

There are several million more people in the seismic zone today and a huge panoply of modern — and a fair share of pre-modern — infrastructure on which the nation’s economy depends and which was constructed without anticipating such an earthquake.   This has implications for the grid, drinking water distribution, sewage systems, dams, bridges, buildings, river locks and levees, natural gas pipelines, and much more. When it happens we will be surprised and we will suffer.

But today at 10:15 many schools, hospitals, workplaces, and more in nine states are collaborating in the The Great Central US Shake Out.  A reasonable investment in a bit less surprise, a bit less suffering.  As KC and Sunshine Band sang, “Give yourself a chance.”

A local comment caught my eye.  According to the Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), Steve Land with the Williamson County emergency management office, “…encourages Illinoisans to have enough food, water, medicines and other necessities to last two weeks.”   This will not be a 72-hour event.

February 7 was not selected at random.  On this date in 1818 the “last” 7.0 plus (some say 9.0 plus) earthquake hit the region.  From December 1811 until February 1818 the central United States experienced at least four earthquakes above 7.0 and as our little 2011 Virginia trembler demonstrated, the shaking travels farther this side of the Rockies.

Talk about a cascading event.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 7, 2013 @ 9:49 am

The Mineral, VA quake was a 5.7, which is not so little!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 7, 2013 @ 10:12 am

Claire, The first quake I personally remember was a New Madrid-related event in November 1968. It measured “only” 5.4 but almost killed me. In one of those animal-like acts of anticipation I rolled off a couch milliseconds before a heavy antique iron fell that would probably have crushed my skull. Survivable perhaps, but if so with potentially life-altering consequences. So I agree, fives can be a problem. But the logarithmic character of the Richter means a 7.7 is about 1000 times more energy than a 5.7, doesn’t it? I’m running and don’t have the time right now to do the math (and don’t trust my memory of the formula either).

Comment by Donald Quixote

February 7, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

It is refreshing to see this planning, interaction and outreach, but where (or what) is the incentive for citizen preparedness? The recommendation of two weeks is outstanding, but the average family will not achieve 24 hours, much less the 72 hour preparedness recommendation. Anecdotal discussions with subjects affected by Hurricane Sandy confirm that it is much more profitable to not prepare on your own and receive the subsequent emergency funding and support, then mitigate against the threat with your own limited funding. Preparation may actually reduce eligibility and justification for access to funding from the many supplemental spending bills to come. How can we judge these victims\citizens for their failure to prepare? It is heartless and mean, but very expensive with cascading results.

As with so many other discussions, is a major earthquake a homeland security, emergency management, public safety, critical infrastructure, national security or other issue? All of them? Does it matter for how we plan, prepare and respond to them?

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 7, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

You are correct that the Modified Mercalli Scale used currently, as well as the older Richter Scale, are logarythmic.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 11, 2013 @ 11:18 am

The book entitled “Acts of God–The unnatural history of natural disasters in America” published in 2000 does a nice job of documenting the coverup by communities that had major impacts from earthquakes in American history. Of not just historical interest is that while earthquakes are largely treated as a scientific subject for study in the USA including enactment of the EARTHQUAKE HAZARDS REDUCTION ACT of 1977 there is no such eqivalent statute for hurricanes.

And of course now we understand that snow removal and its costs and impacts are reason enough for a disaster declaration by the President. Specifically the entire STATE of Connecticut if my understanding is correct.

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