The Fall 2008 Disaster Recovery Journal published an article, “Why Predicting Earthquakes is a Dangerous Idea” in which the author (perhaps unwittingly) applies 19th Century reasoning against warning of tornadoes to warning of earthquakes in the 21st. While the science does not yet allow us to warn of earthquakes, at some future time that scientific capability might exist. So, it is appropriate to ask, “Are earthquake warnings a good idea?” Given sufficient spatial and temporal accuracy, my answer is a resounding, “YES!”
To learn why, let’s examine the remarkable track record of the tornado and hurricane warning system and see what parallels might exist with earthquakes.
Author Thejendra BS poses this scenario:
Imagine a situation where some reliable agency predicts a major quake will hit the city and blasts the warnings through text messages, radio, TV, etc.
REALITY: Actually, this is very close to what happens with tornadoes and hurricanes today. The National Weather Service (for the public) or a weather company (to specific businesses) forecasts a tornado or hurricane to occur.
As soon as the initial shock is absorbed, the very next thing everyone will do is scoot to safety with their belongings and loved ones.
REALITY: When a tornado warning is issued, families gather up their loved ones and head for their basements or, perhaps, a bathroom in the center of their home. People at work move to designated shelter areas. During the devastating Greensburg, Kan.,, tornado of May 2007, authorities called for three refrigerated trucks to hold the “hundreds” of bodies they expected to find. The actual death toll was nine. Ample advance warning saved approximately 230 lives. “Scooting to safety” has great merit when a major storm is expected.
Within hours you can expect the following horror unfolding all around: ... Thousands of people will flock to banks, financial institutions, and insurance agencies to withdraw all their cash, valuables, and other things they may have deposited. This is because there is no guarantee that if and when you come back your house and bank building will still be intact.
REALITY: The United States successfully executes coastal evacuations for hurricane warnings every year, and none has caused a run on financial institutions. Credit/debit cards and checks are far more portable and safer in an emergency evacuation than large amounts of cash.
As soon as the news is made public, everyone will leave their workplaces and start rushing home to their near and dear ones. Very soon everyone will also start leaving the city using every available means of transport. That will mean roads, trains, and planes will be choked everywhere leading to fisticuffs in desperation to get somewhere safer.
REALITY: For tornadoes, most “shelter in place.” For hurricanes, evacuation is the preferred tool that has saved tens of thousands of lives. While not every evacuation goes smoothly (see: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/zine/archives/1-29/18/index.html), there is nothing intrinsic to earthquake warning evacuations that would make them any more difficult to handle than hurricanes. This is not to say the logical challenges are small: Evacuating portions of, say, Los Angeles County would be a huge challenge. Fortunately, there appear to be more evacuation routes (far more freeway capacity in more directions) and transportation alternatives (i.e., train capacity and routes, multiple airports) than are available to Dade County, Fla., in an evacuation for a major hurricane.
Hurricane evacuations could serve as a template for future earthquake evacuations.
Rioting: Once panic sets in, mob hysteria will take over, and no one can be controlled. Rampant looting and arson will start on the streets as people will start stealing and hoarding whatever is available.
REALITY: This has not been the experience with weather warnings, and there is no reason to believe it would be the experience with earthquakes.
And, in all probability, the actual disaster may cause less damage than the havoc created by people’s panic because of advance information [warning].
REALITY: In 1899, meteorologist Cleveland Abbe wrote these words: “The stoppage of business and the unnecessary fright would in its summation during a year be worse than the storms themselves.” Yet, today, we know the opposite is true. Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, killed fewer than 30 people. If there had been no warning, the death toll may have been in the thousands.
Generally, the tornado and hurricane warning systems have cut death rates (deaths per thousand population) by more than 90 percent in the last 60 years!
Storm warnings aren’t just a matter of interest just to the public: B2B warnings of high-impact weather are an essential element of business continuity. On Feb. 5, 2008, I was involved in issuing a tornado warning to the Caterpillar plant in Oxford, Miss., allowing them to move more than 80 employees on-site at the time to shelter before the storm hit. The story of Caterpillar’s people rallying to restore production in less than two weeks is the story of a feature article in The Wall Street Journal of May 19, 2008. The fact the warning kept their people safe and ready to return immediately to work underpinned the recovery effort.
In my book manuscript, “Warnings – The Remarkable True Story of Science’s Battle to Tame the Weather,” I document the development of the storm warning system in the United States that protects us every day. Other geosciences can adapt what meteorologists have learned into more effective warnings for tsunamis and volcanoes and, when scientifically possible, earthquakes.
There is no reason, given sufficient accuracy, earthquake warnings should not be made public just like warnings of tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards. Let’s hope earthquake science progresses to the point we have that opportunity to save lives and property.
Michael R. Smith is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and a Board Certified Consulting Meteorologist. He is the CEO of WeatherData Services, Inc., an AccuWeather Company. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2009 Issue"