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Can the United States Bounce Back?

​AMERICANS MAY THINK they are more prepared for a devastating earthquake than they truly are, according to a report on earthquake resilience authored by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Earthquake Resilience.

Part of the problem is that the last truly devastating earthquake in the United States was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, write the authors.

Since that time, most events have been moderate. “Consequently, a sense has developed that the country can cope effectively with the earthquake threat and is, in fact, ‘resilient.’ However, coping with moderate events may not be a true indicator of preparedness for a great one,” states the report.

The earthquakes in Haiti and Japan are reminders of how damaging serious earthquakes can be—and how challenging it is to be resilient in the face of widespread and severe damage to the infrastructure. Resilience has many definitions, but in general, it refers to the ability to bounce back from an event, and it can include anything from regaining electricity to being able to use certain buildings and other types of critical infrastructure.

Robert Hamilton, chairman of the NRC committee that prepared the report, tells Security Management, “[The committee members] think there needs to be renewed attention to implementing some of the loss reduction measures.”

The report highlights the 2008 Great California Shakeout scenario as an example of the potential destruction and cost of a major earthquake. The scenario looked at the potential consequences of a major earthquake in California and estimated $113 billion in damages to buildings and lifelines, such as electricity, highways, and water supply, and nearly $70 billion in business interruption.

The report notes that only 25 percent of the nationwide network of more than 7,000 earthquake sensor systems that should comprise the U.S. Geological Survey’s Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), have been deployed. The sensors go both in the ground and in buildings and other structures. Once fully deployed, the ANSS is intended to cover all of the parts of the country that are in earthquake zones, especially the 26 at-risk urban areas—the goal being to enable timely reporting of seismic activity. The report calls on the government to fund and deploy the remaining 75 percent of the ANSS.

It also recommends more research, especially toward the development of new techniques for retrofitting existing buildings, and the completion of hazard maps to identify the most at-risk places. The plan is laid out over 20 years and would cost about $306.5 million per year for the first five years.

Hamilton stresses that resilience has to be addressed at the national, state, and community level. Hamilton admits that part of the reason earthquake planning is a difficult problem is that it involves “making choices between dealing with immediate problems versus something that may or may not occur anytime soon.”

A particular challenge is the potential cost of retrofitting old buildings constructed when building codes were less stringent. “It’s a community-by-community decision. In some communities, they’ve been very aggressive about requiring the seismic upgrading of buildings that are the most vulnerable. And in others, not much has been done, so there could be a lot of variability,” says William Ellsworth, geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hamilton says that looking at it on the community level is the only way to truly get the public invested. “If you talk about the potential of a school collapsing, that will often stimulate a community to either retrofit the school or build a new one.”

It’s not all bad news. The report highlights cities that have conducted exceptional earthquake planning, such as San Francisco, California, and Evansville, Indiana. Both Hamilton and Ellsworth agree that the Pacific Northwest and Alaska also are ahead of the rest of the country.

Additionally, experts say that even though the country is not adequately prepared, progress has been made. “We’re clearly very much better prepared than we were 20 years ago,” according to Ellsworth.

Still, the lengthy roadmap laid out by the committee members shows that there is much to be done to ensure that the nation’s various communities will be able to bounce back quickly from a major earthquake.