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Volume 31, Issue 4

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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.

Minor earthquakes occur frequently in the New Madrid Zone, and it is only a matter of time before a damaging earthquake occurs. Interest and awareness has increased in St. Louis and the Southeastern Missouri area since Iben Browning announced the possible occurrence of a damaging earthquake in the New Madrid Zone during the early part of December, 1990. Mr. Browning’s theory was based on the gravitational pull generated by the alignment of the earth, sun, and moon on December 3, 1990.

Experience has shown that even moderate earthquakes can have a major impact on a business’ operations and cause severe hardship. Stricken areas in the midwest can expect interruption of water, electricity, gas and telephone services and a shortage of supplies when a damaging earthquake strikes.

In California it is recommended that individuals and businesses plan to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours after a major earthquake. In the midwest that period may be even longer due to the lack of preparedness in both the public and private sectors, and the lack of seismic resistant design for buildings, highways, bridges, and utilities.

On July 16, 1990 at 4:26 p.m. local time, a severe earthquake registering 7.7 on the Richter scale struck the northern Philippines. The earthquake caused damage over a region of about 7700 square miles, extending northwest from Manila through the densely populated Central Plains of Luzon and into the mountains of the Cordillera Central.

Over 5,000 people were reported dead or injured, and in excess of 2300 infrastructures were either destroyed or seriously damaged. While the quake was devastating, it was not an unusual occurrence in the Philippines; since 1950 alone there have been six major earthquakes at various locations in the archipelago, having magnitudes ranging from 7.3 to 8.3.

Over a year has passed since the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, and repercussions can still be felt and observed in northern California. In the Midwest, Iben Browning, who predicted a quake of 7.0 or greater on the Richter scale to strike along the New Madrid fault in December, is practically a household name. The reports of death and destruction resulting from the Armenia and Philippine earthquakes were overwhelming. Finally, management is becoming persuaded that the “it will never happen to us” mentality could be the equivalent of corporate suicide. Although Browning’s credentials are questionable (he also claimed that the weather conditions caused the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe), his prediction at least proved to be the overdue catalyst for several businesses to take the earthquake threat seriously and, if they hadn’t already, initiate a plan.

With the threat of an earthquake becoming more of a tangible prospect, companies must research the probable risks for their particular regional location, and then learn to manage those risks. In the investigative process, it is necessary to both assess existing structures and retrofit them accordingly, and also to design all new structures to be able to survive the maximum potential earthquake for the location.


Obviously, geographical location is a large determinant of your earthquake risk. While the extreme west and Midwest are the most hazardous zones in the U.S. with the ever-present threats of the San Andreas and New Madrid faults, the rest of the country is not immune from danger; quakes causing major damage have occurred throughout the western third of the country, and smaller quakes have affected, to some degree, virtually every state in the continental U.S.

Another crucial risk factor is the vulnerability of the land at your particular location. Your hazard assessment can hardly be considered complete before you review the geography of the land on which your business is located and conduct a site survey. The geological makeup of the ground will result in different levels of potential damage during a quake. Take two phenomena that are standard in any earthquake:


This essentially defines an earthquake, and the Richter scale is used as a measurement of magnitude. So a 6.0 earthquake in California is the same as a 6.0 earthquake in Missouri, right? Not quite--that same magnitude could shake up to 10 times a greater area in the Midwest due to a different composition of the ground.


Groundmotion is a function of exposure time. The longer the duration of the quake, the better your chances for soil failure and greater structural damage. Liquefaction, an earthquake phenomenon that tends to densify soils, can cause the ground to take on qualities of quicksand if the shaking is strong enough and of sufficient duration. Prime conditions for liquefaction are flood plain soils, sandy or silty soils, shallow groundwater surfaces, and loose density of soil.

Remember, the magnitude of the earthquake alone is only one factor in the overall outcome. If the weatherman tells you it’s 35 degrees with a gusty arctic wind chill of two above, do you only account for the outside temperature before you step outside?

A final risk factor to consider is the frequency of past events at your location. In general, the trend is that events of a higher magnitude are less frequent over time.

After you have determined the earthquake risk to the best of your ability, the next step is to review design drawings of your facility (or facilities) and estimate the probable maximum loss to buildings, equipment and inventory.

When surveying your buildings and/or considering new construction, keep in mind that steel construction has proven to be the best performer in other quakes. The worst is unreinforced masonry--in this design, the walls are not well attached to the interior, causing the exterior to peel away when shaken. This invariably leads to cracking and failure of the walls and the eventual collapse of the entire building. Older non-ductile structures and concrete frame structures also tend to perform badly during earthquakes.

Your final step in the risk assessment procedure is to estimate your insurance requirements. All that this process really entails is a comparison of retrofitting/rebuilding costs to insurance costs. Depending on the outcome of your research, you may choose to go wholly with one or the other, or else try some combination of the two.


Now that you know your risks, you have to decide what to do about them. The consequences of the once-solid ground suddenly metamorphosing into quicksand can be quite dire. Expected outcomes can include landslides or lateral movements, settlement, reduction or loss of bearing capacity, increased pressure on retaining structures, and uplift of buried structures. Unfortunately, being a risk bestowed by nature, liquefaction-prone areas are not easily stabilized. However, means have been developed to increase soil density and/or strength, lower groundwater levels, and reduce buildup of pore pressure.

Mitigation techniques can be performed more easily on the actual structures that are vital to your organization. In addition to retrofitting facilities, it is also crucial to anchor equipment and brace suspended utilities.

Your underground pipe system, though unseen, is another critical component of your entire facility. During an earthquake, pipes can rupture, become misaligned, or become elevated due to ground and/or soil failure. Not only would any of these events inevitably result in grave long-term economic repercussions for your organization, but you would also find yourself without the water system needed immediately to combat fires, for sanitation, for drinking, etc.

To increase the probability of survival during a quake, design all new pipes with flexible joints and avoid sites with bad soil conditions. When retrofitting old pipe systems, you can take any or all of the following steps:

  • construct protective walls around portals
  • construct engineered sea walls
  • check pipes for and protect from corrosion, especially at joints
  • strengthen or replace the most vulnerable portions

If you will be undertaking the design of a new pipe system for your organization, take note that in the Loma Prieta quake, ductile iron pipes and asbestos cement pipes with rubber gasket joints brought in the best performance.


Be wary of the losses that don’t immediately affect your business, for it may well transpire that destruction occurring miles from your facility may result in a devastating outcome for your organization. Highways, bridges, and airports are all susceptible to liquefaction, landslides, rupture and cracking; with bridges is the added possibility of connection failure (which occurred on the San Francisco Bay Bridge) and other structural damage; airports have the additional potential for collapse and damage of unsecured equipment as well as a loss of power and communications. As a consequence of these damages, you may find that emergency supplies are inaccessible by road or air, and you may also have no means to transport employees to and from work.

It is time that businesses come to realize that earthquakes are an omnipresent threat. The extent of your recovery from one will depend on how prepared you are, and your preparedness can only be as adequate as the time you invest in researching the geographical location of the facility as well as the ground on which it is located. If you do conduct a thorough risk assessment and retrofit program, you will find that this relatively simple process very well may be the saving grace for your business when an earthquake strikes.

Margo Young is a staff writer for the Disaster Recovery Journal.

This article adapted from Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 12.

A successful disaster plan is not merely a three-ring binder with lists of phone numbers and resources. Rather, it is a result of the combined planning efforts of many departments and people. Persons involved in the planning need to look at what should be done in the areas of staff training, determining “vital records,” and evaluating structural and non-structural seismic hazard reduction. Planners need to verify what systems can be in place to collect disaster information and display it for the decision- makers. Authority should be clearly delegated, allowing those involved to make decisions and take action on the available information, and functional communications need to be established for the dissemination of decisions.

Corporations with stocked disaster supplies found that even though this was not “The Big One,” their employees used the lightsticks, flashlights, portable radios, prybars, and emergency rations and were pleased that their offices were ready. Knowledgable floor wardens prevented panic and appropriately responded to reports of persons trapped in elevators, smoke in the stairwell, jammed doors, power failures, and gas and water leaks. Key executives knew where to report to obtain information on the status of the company’s situation. Emergency Operations Centers provided corporations with the ability to collect information and take appropriate action to assure continuity of business.

In this 15 second, 7.1 quake, we were relatively lucky; for example, in 1964, Alaska suffered a four minute 8.3 quake. But it did alert previously apathetic corporations of the need to get a realistic disaster plan for their organization. Now that corporate executives see that they may indeed be without water, electricity, sewage systems, transportation, communications, and even access to their offices for a time, perhaps they realize the importance to plan for alternatives to assure themselves the ability to function under disaster situations.
Organizations that took action to mitigate non-structural hazards by bracing shelves and file cabinets, putting Velcro under computer, communications, and laboratory equipment, and bracing florescent fixtures and water heaters found that they had minimized business disruption following the quake.

Seismic upgrading of elevators seemed to be very valuable, as there were no deaths or injuries reported as a result of elevator failure. However, there were many reports of minor problems with auxiliary power generators. Some were depending on natural gas as a fuel source, and in many cases electricity and gas were both out. Some had failed to properly anchor generator and batteries and found their systems didn’t automatically come on line. Some didn’t know how much or how little was on auxiliary power in their facility. It was embarrassing when security gates, telephone systems, disaster radios, and radio battery chargers were found not to be on the auxiliary power system! Future disaster plans will certainly inventory what the auxiliary power system provides.

Some communications systems worked well. The telephone industry loaned emergency service agencies thousands of cellular telephones with one month of free air time. Serendiptity! You had new portable telephones with unlisted phone numbers so your key players could control who had their phone number. Unlisted or at least restricted phone access phones in emergency operations centers proved very valuable. Many disaster coordinators reported on the advantages of fax machines. Those lines weren’t as busy as the main switchboard, so there were fewer reports of overloading, and printed copy minimized misunderstandings. List your fax reources in your communications section of your disaster plans. Also list the numbers of pay phones in your buildings--this is an extra communications resource.

We take water and sanitation for granted, but in the Marina District of San Francisco they were knocked out and both families and businesses had to rely on bottled water and port-a-potties. What have you provided in your disaster plan for water and sanitation?

In San Francisco we found that certain truisms (duck and cover, get under a strong table or desk, get away from windows, brace yourself in a doorway, and do not use the elevators) were correct. The sidewalk in front of buildings is very dangerous. Stay inside buildings or get into open space. Five died when bricks fell off of a building on 6th Street.

While in this earthquake all hospitals were not damaged or overloaded, the on-site first aid action of trained floor wardens was very valuable. Are your key personnel trained in first aid? Some in every facility and on every shift?

Pre-disaster training minimizes emotional aftershock. Companies that had provided earthquake preparedness training for both their employees at work and their families at home found their staff could continue to function in their disaster operations because they knew their families were secure.

The term “vital records” held a new meaning for corporate executives who could not get into their offices. It no longer meant just computer tapes and disks, it also meant their phone lists and rolodoxes on their desks. Blueprints easily duplicated now are very hard to come by or get copied the day after an earthquake. After-hours contacts for your key vendors and special customers should be considered vital records and provided for in your disaster plan.

Perhaps now is the time to take an inventory/survey of your employees. Who is interested in helping in time of disaster? Who are amateur radio operators? First Aiders or experienced military medics? Who is trained in building or carpentry that would be valuable in search and rescue tool, public information and public relations functions and corporate decision-making were all in place.

In these examples, we learn the valuable lesson that although we can in no way prevent a disaster from occurring, we can at least recover from one by providing adequate planning. These experiences teach us the necessity of taking disaster recovery planning past the three-ring binder stage and into the form of a workable tool that propels corporations into tomorrow’s business day.

Pete Ashen is Administrator of Emergency Services with the Golden Gate Chapter of American Red Cross.

This article adapted from Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 28.