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MCEER Bulletin CoverThis article was taken from the latest  MCEER Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2001. View the complete Bulletin.

Raising Earthquake Awareness in the Eastern United States


On January 17, 2001, a minor earthquake occurred in New York City. Although small, the event served as a warning that earthquakes can and do happen in the northeast. On the same date in 1995, Kobe, Japan experienced a 7.2 (JMA) magnitude event that left over 5,500 dead in a nation that expects frequent earthquakes, and had taken steps to mitigate their impact on the population. However, the Kobe event was much stronger than previously thought for that part of Japan. The year before, a gain on the same date, California experienced the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake. Californians expect strong and frequent events of this type. Although the earthquake claimed over 50 lives, the area was relatively well prepared for this type of event, and was able to recover quickly.

NYC skylineIn the eastern U.S., infrequent moderate earthquakes can and do occur. What would the consequences be if a magnitude 6 or greater event were to happen in the New York City area? A dramatization of such an earthquake aired on the Discovery Channel this past February. The overwhelming majority of citizens interviewed expressed surprise that a significant earthquake could occur in New York City. They were primarily unconcerned to them, many other social and/or safety problems are more important than mitigation of earthquake risk.

MCEER s research and education programs have been concerned with both types of earthquake conditions: frequent and strong earthquakes, and infrequent, moderate earthquakes (that may have significant consequences)

For example, our research on retrofitting hospitals for post-earthquake functionality is built around a two-pronged approach. In California, major health care facilities are mandated by law to be retrofitted in the next few years. Research is focused on determining the most reliable and cost-effective methods to use to retrofit these facilities. In the central and eastern U.S. (we have chosen New York City as our focal point), in addition to the engineering aspect, we also must convince hospital administrators, legislators and the public at large that the threat of a moderate earthquake and its ensuing consequences is an important issue and should be addressed. These stakeholders must first be willing to say that retrofitting/preparation for infrequent moderate earthquakes is in fact beneficial, and then allocate resources to mitigate the potential damage.

Throughout the Center's history, we have taken many steps to heighten awareness in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains to the earthquake hazard. Most notably, we participated in the effort to add seismic provisions to the New York City building code (began in 1987 and signed into law in 1995). Staff and researchers have given in-depth interviews to representatives from national and international media, including National Public Radio, the Discovery Channel in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain, especially following major earthquakes. We actively participate in committees to recommend standards and codes. We will continue these endeavors and will work with others to create earthquake resilient communities throughout the world in regions of high seismicity and where less frequent, but no less severe events can occur.

--George C. Lee, Director


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