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Volume 27, Issue 4

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October 29, 2007

Can Central United States Survive An Earthquake

Written by  the Missouri Department of Natural Resources
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Nature unleashes its most destructive wrath in the form of a powerful earthquake, emergency planners warn.
Should such a serious quake occur within Missouri or within the Central United States in the near future, scores of businesses may find themselves thrust into a struggle for survival amid the mass of ruin and destruction.

This is because thousands of individual companies and key industries such as banking, finance and insurance, rely heavily on modern technology which includes computers and automatic data processing systems. Unfortunately, without proper precautions, these sophisticated systems are all too vulnerable to heavy damage in the event of a severe earthquake, officials for the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), in Jefferson City, Missouri advise.

“As we have reaped the benefits of technology, we have become a nation at risk,” SEMA’s Director, R.D. Ross says. “We are dependent upon computers and ADP systems in almost all phases of our lives.”

“And because of the earthquake threat to Missouri and the Central U.S., we are virtually prisoners of a fragile society,” Ross says.

Risk management officials caution that while some businesses at least recognize the earthquake threat, too many companies have considered only the potential for loss of life and property destruction. What many businesses tend to overlook is the threat to the viability of the business itself.

Disaster recovery consultants fear that some companies may be so severely devastated by a major earthquake that they may be unable to resume full operations soon enough to maintain market share, or even stay in business at all. They cite the need for comprehensive disaster recovery plans, which include backup sites for computers, as the key to saving their business in any type of major catastrophe, including earthquakes.

For Missouri and neighboring states, earthquakes epicentered in the New Madrid Fault Zone pose the greatest “single-hazard” natural disaster which Central Mississippi Valley residents are ever likely to experience. Historians remind us that in the 1800’s, Missouri was the scene of probably the greatest earthquake ever to strike the continental U.S. Estimated at a magnitude 8.7 on the Richter scale, the quake was the last of three major tremblers which took place over the winter of 1811- 1812. Each was as devastating as the better-known San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Scientists say that a repeat of an 8.7 magnitude earthquake would have the explosive power of more than a half million tons of TNT. Today, the area at risk would include high population centers such as St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, Louisville and Little Rock, while encompassing at least seven states.

They are Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Indiana.

While such worst-case quakes as in 1812 are unlikely to occur in the near future, seismologists say there is enough energy stored within the fault today to produce at least a 6.5 Richter magnitude earthquake before the turn of the century. A quake of this size would still cause substantial damage in much of Missouri and the neighboring states, emergency planners say.

While the New Madrid Fault Zone is among the best known seismic areas, it is actually part of a seven-state regional network of numerous other fault systems, known as the Central United States Seismic Zone. As such, a strong earthquake along any of these faults would impact Missouri and the surrounding states.

The New Madrid Fault, which crosses through the Bootheel in Southeast Missouri, is acknowledged by earthquake scientists as the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains. Scientists have defined the location of the New Madrid zone as extending from about 25 miles northwest of Memphis to the Reelfoot Lake area in western Tennessee where it turns toward New Madrid, Missouri and then continues northwest to southern Illinois. It is thought to be up to 40 miles wide and about 200 miles long. Unlike California’s famous San Andreas Fault, New Madrid’s fault line cannot be seen by the naked eye since it is buried as much as 25 miles deep.

California’s seismic activity is far better known since earthquakes occur there more frequently. However, damages are more localized because of the gological substructure and earthquakes generally do not affect areas far from the epicenter. By contrast, shock waves from quakes in the Central U.S. travel over longer distances and have the potential for greater damage over a more extensive area.

The three great quakes of 1811-1812, all exceeding a magnitude of 8.4, rang church bells in Washington D.C., toppled chimneys in St. Louis, and sent tremors that were felt as far as Quebec, Canada. Closer to the epicenters, the shocks totally destroyed the original town of New Madrid, caused the Mississippi river briefly to run upstream, and created Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee.

The most recent example of far-ranging tremors in the Central U.S. was the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in June 1986, epicentered at Lawrenceville, Illinois. The quake was felt in Missouri and some 20 other states.

“Many of us have heard the phrase that earthquakes are a national problem,” Ross said. “By this, we mean more than the fact that seismic faults are found in 39 of the 50 states. In addition, a single incident, with its direct and indirect impacts, can affect virtually everyone in the United States,” he said. “This is because of the earthquake’s impact on commerce, transportation, communications, and other lifeline systems has a huge ripple effect.”

Numerous studies and reports, based on scientific investigations and observations of earthquakes, have yielded a generally accepted scenario of what is likely to happen should a major earthquake occur in the Central Mississippi Valley.

  • The earthquake will occur without warning.
  • The earthquake and aftershocks will trigger numerous secondary events.
  • The death and injury rate will likely be painfully high. - As many as 12 million people could be directly affected. - Lifeline systems, including utilities, and communications, may be impaired.
  • Roads and bridges may be impassable; railroad tracks could buckle.
  • Vital commodities, such as food, medical supplies and materials to rebuild with will be in critically short supply. - There likely will be no electricity, water, or sewer facilities.
  • Natural gaslines may rupture.
  • Banking will virtually stop.
  • Emergency facilities, such as hospitals, are apt to be extensively damaged or destroyed.
  • The demand on state and local governments and volunteer agencies will be overwhelming.
  • The Federal government may not be able to respond with physical and financial help for up to 72 hours.

With serious damage to our lifelines and the loss of electric power for a prolonged period, the full impact of a major earthquake on surrounding states and the nation becomes more readily apparent.

Throughout much of the Eighties, emergency planners and key officials in Missouri, the Central United States and the Federal Government have worked fervently to develop earthquake response plans to mitigate or lessen the impact that a major quake would have on the region. In so doing, the states responded to the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program which emphasizes mitigation, public awareness, and community involvement in preparing for the earthquake threat. In establishing the NEHRP in 1977, Congress recognized that losses and disruption to the individual, the state, and the nation caused by earthquakes could be reduced through the development and implementation of earthquake hazard reduction measures, such as seismic safety design features.

The NEHRP cites a painful statistic which indicates that in an earthquake, 90 percent of life and economic loss result from the failure of manmade structures.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is spearheading the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, in conjunction with other Federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, and state emergency management agencies across the country. Throughout this process, local governments are encouraged to implement public awareness and education programs, and to involve representatives of the public, science, technology, business, and industry in all phases of their earthquake planning and mitigation activity.

The Federal government has also responded with the National Catastrophic Earthquake Response Plan, as well as the Central United States Earthquake Preparedness Project, initiated in 1981. This program is designed to assist state earthquake planning activities, encourage mitigation activities, and further cooperation among the states in regional planning.

Missouri has for several years tested its own State Earthquake Response Plan, and has joined in planning with the six neighboring states - Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi - in the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC). The purpose of this organization is to enhance public awareness of the earthquake threat and to coordinate the earthquake preparedness planning effort throughout the central United States.

For the private sector, Ross cautions business and industry officials that while the Federal and State government agencies have a direct and critical role in Missouri’s earthquake response plan, “government is neither capable nor prepared to single- handedly make the vast economic decisions required in such a disaster.”

“Simply put, the effect of a catastrophic earthquake in a large metropolitan area upon the data processing centers and their external support will be devastating,” SEMA’s earthquake planner Michael Coe states. “Without access to data processing capabilities, the financial community will be unable to operate in this electronic age,” he says. “And the disruption of cash flow will be felt immediately in all areas serviced by the affected region.”

Studies in California predict that should the Bank of America lose the use of its large, centralized data processing center in Los Angeles for three days, the state as a whole would be affected. Were the shutdown to continue for five days, the U.S. economy would be affected. And after ten days, the ripple effect would then impact the world economy. As a result of this impact analysis, the Bank of America has since chosen to build a backup facility for its Los Angeles operation.

Earthquake recovery planning for business and industry is still a relatively new field of endeavor, despite such overwhelming repercussions. “As our understanding of the nature of the earthquake risk inherent to businesses and industrial facilities increases, the need for recovery planning becomes more apparent,” SEMA’s Director concludes.

Currently, the Banking and Financial Service Industry leads the way in data processing recovery planning, according to reports published by the Third U.S. National Conference on Earthquakes Engineering. Most of the finance industry’s initial efforts, the report says, have come in the area of offsite computer backup facilities.
But as disaster recovery consultants suggest, backup sites are but one part of a carefully developed and well maintained disaster recovery plan. The plan should represent a key element in the management of any corporation’s data processing practices.

The plan should also be integrated with a hazard analysis or vulnerability assessment of the company’s building, facilities, and equipment at risk, the consultants advise.

“A recovery plan should be put together before catastrophe strikes, rather than in reaction to the given disaster,” Ross notes. “The plan ideally is based upon a detailed assessment of the risk to which the data handling process or other systems may be exposed.”

Like the state and local earthquake response plans, corporate disaster recovery plans must be tested and retested periodically against a scenario relevant to the emergency and the likely impact on the business itself.
“Since it is impossible to predict when an earthquake or other disaster will occur, there is still much that can be done in the private sector beforehand to protect operations, equipment and facilities under a comprehensive disaster recovery plan,” Ross said.

WHAT CAN BUSINESSES DO?

For Emergency Response and Mitigation

  • Walk through facilities and look for problems.
  • Assess onsite emergency medical capabilities.
  • Have operating plans for evacuation (including multiple access/egress routes) and fire control. Practice these plans.
  • Have plans (and backups) for communications.
  • Have emergency power and water backups.
  • Have redundancy in data or record storage and processing, including offsite storage and backups of essential information.
  • Know sources of information.
  • County or City Emergency Management Agency
  • State Emergency Management Agency (in Missouri, PO Box 116 Jefferson City, Missouri 65102 )
  • Local Fire Departments
  • Your Insurance Company
  • National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program series of publications through Federal Emergency Management Agency,
    PO Box 70274, Washington, D.C. 20024
  • If in doubt, hire a professional.

For Geological Concerns

  • Check for possible problems - not only for new construction but prior to facility or site acquisition. (Acceptance of a geotechnical report can be a condition of purchase.)
  • Know your sources of geologic hazard information.
  • Local city/county files and general plans
  • BOCA codes
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • State Department of Natural Resources (in Missouri, Division of Land Survey, Rolla, Missouri 65401)
  • If in doubt, hire a professional.

For Structural Engineering Concerns

  • Structural engineers and architects should be allowed to participate from the beginning on major new projects.
  • Excessive remodeling can change the way a building responds to an earthquake.
  • Regularly inspect existing facilities and have plans for reconstruction/rehabilitation.
  • Check new facilities prior to acquisition.
  • If in doubt, hire a professional.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No. 3, p. 10.

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