Earthquake!

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 27, 2008

Tsunamis and massive conflagrations might make for lurid nightmares, but the real dangers may be much simpler: “One of the things I worry about is that a lot of injuries actually happen to people in cities who are out in the streets,” says Ebel. “Pieces of buildings tend to fall out, rather than in.” In Boston, there’s no shortage of Victorian-era ornamentation to come tumbling down. “I can just see people running out the front door of those apartment buildings and having that stuff coming off the roof and falling on them.” His advice in the event of an earthquake: “stay inside and get under something.”

Compound hazards
The way to address the challenges of an earthquake’s aftermath in a region like New England is with an all-hazards approach, says Northeast States Emergency Consortium’s Fratto. “In developing your overall capability, whether it’s an earthquake or something else, you’re ready.”

John Christian, a Newton-based geotechnical engineer, agrees. “I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently looking at Hurricane Katrina. Although disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks — are very different, the issues of disaster preparedness and disaster recovery are remarkably the same. Is somebody in charge? Will the hospitals continue to function? Are the fire-protection systems robust enough? After the shaking’s over, you’re going to have a looting problem; what are you going to do about it? Is there a disaster-recovery plan? I think that’s one of the great lessons learned from Katrina.”

(It’s no coincidence that the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute held their annual meeting earlier this month in New Orleans — not exactly a city know for seismic activity.)

Marty Bahamonde, external affairs director of FEMA in New England, was the first on the ground in New Orleans during Katrina. He’d been sent there by director Michael Brown to be the agency’s “eyes and ears” — and his dire warnings were blissfully ignored. He was also deployed to the massive 2003 6.6 quake in Bam, Iran.

Yes, he says “lessons [have been] learned” since Katrina: “Food and water supplies. Temporary-housing solutions. Urban search-and-rescue teams — we have one in New England, we could deploy that immediately. The National Disaster Medical System, we could activate that unit to come in and provide medical care in the event that hospitals are damaged. Those are the kind of services we could provide in the first 12, 24, 48 hours.”

Relative safety
Joseph Zona was in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, shortly after the 7.3 quake there killed 4600 people and left 240,000 homeless. He’s seen “the devastation . . . how it disrupts people’s lives.”

And yet, he still says, the relative lack of earthquakes in this part of the country is “maybe a reason to live in Boston rather than Los Angeles.”

As an engineer, and through his involvement with the seismic advisory committee to the state board of building regulations, Zona says he’s “someone who thinks about earthquakes all the time.” But he doesn’t have earthquake insurance. “It depends how risk averse you are, your ability to understand risk and put it in perspective,” he says. “I live in a wood-frame house. Would it be damaged? Yes. Would I survive? Yes. It’s not my biggest worry.

“It’s something we need to be aware of. If I were purchasing a building in the Back Bay, I’d ask my engineer how to make the building safer. But there’s a fine line between beating the drum for awareness and seeming like hysteria.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, unlike a blizzard or a hurricane, “seismologists have no way of telling when an earthquake is coming,” says Ebel. “When an earthquake occurs, I am just as surprised as the next person.”

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