Earthquake!

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 27, 2008

The state’s bridges are another concern. In the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota this past August, the Boston Globe noted that “approximately 10 percent of the 5500 bridges in Massachusetts are classified under federal standards as ‘structurally deficient,’ including 65 well-traveled bridges with such serious defects that they may need to be replaced.”

Who can forget the horrifying images of cars sliding off severed bridges and overpasses during the Loma Prieta quake? That’s not to say things would be that bad here. But “we know we’ve got weak points in some of our highway bridges,” says Ebel. “If you have an earthquake, it will probably find some of those weak points and maybe damage some of them.”

Stevens sees similar weaknesses nearly everywhere he looks. “The infrastructure concerns me the most. A lot of it is old and needs addressing — highways and bridges, water mains, gas mains, public transportation. The MBTA has struggled financially — they certainly do a lot with the resources that they have, but it’s an old subway system, and it’s in need of care. We need to invest in [infrastructure]. The more money we spend, the better off we’ll be.”

In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, “the combination of fires and the loss of water to fight them virtually burned the city down,” says Ebel. During the Loma Prieta quake, broken water mains meant fireboats had to draw water from the Bay, which was then pumped through hoses manned by citizen volunteers.

“Boston does not have a lot of bodies of water,” says Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald. “There’s Chandler’s Pond in Brighton. The Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Jamaica Pond. If we had to, we could draft out of places like that.” But, he says, “we don’t have water tankers — you won’t find any city in America that has water tankers to ferry water in. It’s just not practical.” And “this isn’t California, where you have a lot of helicopters to do things like [air drops].”

In any case, MacDonald is confident the 265 or so firefighters on duty in the city at any given time (there are 1530 jakes in all) — buttressed, if necessary, by the mutual-aid system comprising the 31 cities and towns in Boston’s fire district — and reinforcements from around the Commonwealth, will rise to the challenge. “We do training on [Boston Harbor’s] Long Island several times a year,” he says. “We have specific units trained in technical rescue and structural collapse. We got a truck downtown as big as a beer-delivery truck — you open it up and it’s like a Home Depot: loaded with plywood and jacks and braces.”

If water may be unavailable in certain parts of the city post-earthquake, other parts may be drenched by a wet and unwelcome surprise. “I can’t rule out the possibility of a tsunami from an off-shore earthquake,” says Ebel.

Although there’s no evidence that an earthquake has ever caused a significant tsunami around here, he says, “there was an earthquake in 1929 off Newfoundland that caused a tsunami that came up on shore. The epicenter was offshore, under the Grand Banks.” (That was a 7.2 on the Richter scale; for comparison’s sake, the Asian tsunami in December 2004 was a 9 or 9.2)

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