Earthquake conference puts spotlight on preparedness
If -- some experts say when -- the "big one" hits the middle of the country, local leaders should be prepared to be on their own for the first 72 to 96 hours.
That's the message an emergency preparedness official had for those who would be in the forefront of response and recovery following an earthquake in Missouri.
With communications lines, electricity, bridges and roads out of commission, it would take time to assemble the troops and begin delivering assistance, said Col. Mark McCarter, who's in charge of strategic plans, policy, joint training and exercises for the Missouri National Guard.
McCarter made his comments at a conference on earthquake preparedness at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla last week. State and local officials from several states came to learn how their efforts following an earthquake would dovetail with responses from federal agencies and the National Guard.
"We will be there," McCarter said. "You have our commitment that we'll be there, but you have to be educating your people about what they can do" for the first 72 to 96 hours following a major quake.
"Everybody is looking for men in a Blackhawk helicopter," he said. The reality is with current military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are not that many of them around, he added.
A slide in McCarter's presentation shows "we have the capability to do stuff and move stuff," McCarter said. "What it doesn't tell you is you're going to have to be a little self-sufficient in the county for a little while."
Still, a huge contingent of Guard members can show up relatively quickly. Two weeks after Katrina hit, 50,000 troops were on the scene in Louisiana, McCarter said. "That's a lot," he added.
But a large number of Guard members converging on an earthquake site is not necessarily the best scenario, he said. "The worst thing we can do from a military standpoint is to show up at one time. You don't need that extra burden on your infrastructure."
The immediate impact
Unlike a California quake, a major earthquake along southern Missouri's New Madrid fault could disrupt the nation's utilities, transportation system and energy sources with an impact reaching far beyond the eight states most likely to bear the physical damage, experts said.
Midwest Fault Lines
The New Madrid fault is the best known fault line in the Midwest, but it's not the only one. The two other Midwest fault lines are the South Central Illinois fault and the Wabash Valley fault in southern Indiana.
"They haven't been studied in nearly as much detail as the New Madrid zone because they are not as active," said J. David Rogers, the Karl F. Hasselmann chair in geological engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
The New Madrid seismic zone was responsible for North America's largest quakes. The quakes that jolted southern Missouri in 1811 and 1812 were believed to be stronger than 7.0 on the Richter scale and generated about 2,000 after shocks. Because the country was then sparsely populated, damage was not significant. But the quake changed the course of the Mississippi River, drained some lakes and created others. It reportedly was felt on the East Coast where it rang church bells.
While the New Madrid zone spawns about 300 recorded earthquakes a year, scientists estimate the Wabash zone triggers about one 7.0 magnitude earthquake every 1,000 years, he said.
Theoretically the Southern Illinois zone is also capable of producing a 7.0 event, Rogers said. "But those quakes are so deep beneath the glaciated surface debris, we haven't been able to date them conclusively," he said. The Southern Illinois zone has spawned a few magnitude 5.4 to 5.5 events over the past 150 years. "So it is real, but nowhere near as concentrated number of quakes as the other two," he said.
If either the Southern Illinois or the Wabash Valley zone were to spawn a 6.0 quake, "we'd be in for a heap of trouble in the St Louis metro area, especially anything of a magnitude 6.5 or above," Rogers said.
Why is New Madrid Worse?
While California's San Andreas fault gets more press, the entire country would be affected by a quake along the New Madrid fault.
- A quake with the same Richter scale reading could cause more damage in the Midwest because of amplitude (the waves spread farther here because of the type of soil we have) and liquefaction (a process where loose soils are turned into liquid)
- Some of the country's major gas and oil lines cross the Mississippi River near St. Louis.
"Midwest quakes are less frequent but much more lethal than California quakes because there is less damping of seismic energy," said Rogers.
How Severe Would Damage Be?
The Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign predicts that Tennessee would sustain the highest level of damage in a major earthquake emanating from the New Madrid seismic zone. For Tennessee, Amr Elnashair, director of the center, calculated:
- More than 250,000 buildings would suffer moderate to severe damage,
- More than 260,000 people would be displaced,
- About 60,000 casualties (injuries and fatalities) would result.
Missouri's losses could also be substantial. More than 80,000 buildings damaged, leaving more than 120,000 people displaced and causing more than 15,000 casualties. Direct economic losses in Missouri would reach $40 billion. Adding in the damages to surrounding states, it would be "by far the highest economic loss due to a natural disaster in the U.S.," said Elnashai.
How Ready Are We?
If the "big one" happens tomorrow, "We are enormously prepared," said Allen Lehmen, state exercise officer for the State Emergency Management Agency.
Still, Lehmen concedes it's hard to know how prepared you actually are until a disaster actually happens. "I don't know if we're ever ready for anything," he said. "If you want to say that we're going to be 100 percent accurate, that is completely insane. We don't live in a bubble. We're doing the preparation as best we can based on the facts we know."
The state's emergency operations plan is currently getting its third update, Lehman said. "Plans are living documents based on how we change our way of doing business, politics, anything and everything that can come into play."
Overall Lehmen is confident that his agency is prepared. "We're pretty darned good at what we do, but can we cover all the bases?" he asked. "The situation will dictate. That's all I can say."
Consider an earthquake in the range of the 6.7 quake that caused $40 billion in damages in Northridge, CA, in 1994. If it occurred along the New Madrid fault, it would cause $70 billion to $90 billion in direct building losses, said Shannon Marquez, project manager with IEM, the private company working with FEMA on the New Madrid Seismic Zone Catastrophic Planning project.
Models show that 30,000 highway bridges and 86,000 miles of highways could be damaged in the quake, profoundly disrupting transcontinental travel and commerce, he said.
A break in natural gas lines could result in a 25 percent reduction in services "just in the Chicago area alone," Marquez said. "If that happens in wintertime, think about it. . ."
Refineries producing about 300,000 barrels of oil a day could also be disrupted. "So, if we have an earthquake of that magnitude, you can see how this is going to affect our entire country," he said. "That's a lot of stuff going in all at the same time. How in the heck do you get your arms around all of this?"
Responding to the emergency
Unlike storms that experts can track, earthquakes are "a no-notice event," Marquez said. "We don't get any warning. I don't have several days to follow a storm track and watch it develop."
With damage occurring anywhere over 126,000 square miles, the response challenges of a major quake in the Midwest are "monumental." They would include security, the mass care of children and housing. "How are we going to evacuate, relocate or move them down the street?" he asked.
Essentially, "it's a partnership and a roots-on-the-ground kind of thing," Marquez said. The partnership encompasses local fire and police officials all the way up to state, regional and federal officials, including the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), the eight states in the affected area, the Mid America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois, the Department of Homeland Security, four FEMA regions, FEMA headquarters and the U.S. Geological Survey, he said.
Despite the havoc a major Midwest quake could have on the country, earthquakes haven't garnered the attention or the resources of other natural disasters, the experts said.
"In some states, we have a little bit of a problem because earthquakes haven't been on their radar. If I'm a hurricane state, I'm worried about hurricanes, not earthquakes," Marquez said.
While most of the damage would likely occur in cities, and most the resources would be directed there, responders face special challenges in assisting people in remote rural areas. A major quake could affect 230 or 700 counties in eight states. "That's a lot of counties," he said.
Structural damage would vary, depending on how buildings are constructed and how much retrofitting had been done. While the international building code is widely used in the United States today, most states haven't adopted the seismic aspect of it because "it costs a lot of money to meet it," he said.
Practicing for the "big one"
Allen Lehmen, state exercise officer for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), described a series of workshops held across Missouri last year to help preparedness officials anticipate the challenges a major quake would present. Ironically, the workshops for St. Louis had to be canceled because SEMA had to deal with real-life emergencies, including tornados, ice storms and floods, he said.
The workshops were both "tabletop" where officials met to discuss responses and "functional" where participants were given a "player packet" that painted a picture of the damage the earthquake did in their area. Funding for earthquake exercises has been limited since most emergency preparedness has been oriented toward terrorist scenarios, Lehmen said. "We challenged that, We said, 'If you're going to have us do exercises and in your grant program, you call it all-hazard, why can't we use the money to do an earthquake exercise? After all, the concept is the same.'"
The result was a three-day functional event last year, Missouri's first earthquake exercise in 10 years, where officials learned that communication -- both now and after a big quake -- is a major issue. In many instances, local responders don't know all the "state assets that are available to them," Lehmen said. It's important that they learn what's available and how to request it, he said.
After a major quake, phone lines and cell phone towers may be down and email service disrupted. To keep the action
realistic, the usual methods of communications -- phone, cell phone,
email -- were suspended, he added, and communication was done through battery-operated phones, satellite phones and Ham radio operators, Lehmen added.
Their objective was to issue a damage assessment report and determine "response and recovery" tasks, he said."As the earthquake happened, things were changing. The one thing we didn't do in this exercise was aftershocks," he said. "That would have just started the wheel back all over again."
Another goal of the conference was to give local and state level emergency response officials a chance to tell scientists what kind of information the scientists might have that they could use. A tabletop exercise at the end of the conference gave them that opportunity.
One local official from southern Missouri asked if the scientists would be able to tell him if sinkholes -- already prevalent in his area -- would open up with a major earthquake.
"We have sinkhole information right now," a scientist replied.
"I kind of figured you had it. I just didn't know who to call," the official said.
A St. Louis official asked rhetorically. "What's the Arch going to look like? Will it be standing? That's what are the media going to be looking at."
In one of the meeting's keynote speeches, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, called the threat of an earthquake "a critical issue for our region and our nation." But Congress has been slow to earmark resources for the New Madrid Seismic Zone or even to give the matter much attention. Emerson represents 28 counties in southern Missouri.
"I have made this repeated point as a member of the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee and as a current member of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee: We have a sleeping giant beneath our feet. Eventually it is going to wake up," Emerson said.
The "sleeping giant" will awaken without notice, she said. "We have to prepare today like it will happen tomorrow."
Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis. To reach her, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.