Earthquake!

The threat is real. It could happen here. Is the city ready?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 27, 2008

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And you thought the Blizzard of ’78 was disruptive. That was just a little snow and a few blocked roads. Picture buildings from Southie to West Somerville reduced to rubble. Dozens of three-alarm fires all over town. Tunnels flooded with seawater. And, hey, maybe a few escaped anthrax spores for good measure. Trapped under a building? Just sit tight — federal search and extraction teams are only a county away. Let’s hope the bridges into town are in decent shape.

Take a deep breath. It probably won’t be quite that bad. But it could be bad. Seismologists, structural engineers, and emergency responders are concerned that Boston is particularly ill-suited to withstand a major quake. Vast swaths of Boston’s buildings and infrastructure — brick townhouses on Beacon Hill dating back to colonial times, miles of turn-of-the-past-century subway tunnels, structurally suspect World War II–era bridges — predate modern quake-conscious building codes and are especially vulnerable.

But the big-money question is how local, state, and federal officials would tend to the injured and displaced after such an unexpected and unprecedented event. A moderate-to-strong earthquake that strikes without warning might only shake the ground for a few seconds, but could leave devastation in its wake.

Responding to a quake in Boston might require widespread search-and-extraction operations. Or massive, citywide firefighting efforts with broken water pipes leaving little means to fight the flames. Gas mains might be ruptured. Bridges disabled. Public transportation hampered. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the government’s potential for inefficiency and incompetence when it comes to dealing with huge natural disasters. Have we learned lessons since then? Or are we still on shaky ground? We may be finding out sooner than we’d hope.

Rumblings and predictions
New England averages an earthquake of magnitude 5 or greater about once every 50 to 60 years. The last tremors that big occurred in December of 1940, when Ossipee, New Hampshire, was shaken by two quakes, four days apart, that each measured 5.5 on the Richter scale.

According to geophysicist John Ebel, director of Boston College’s Weston Observatory, that means “we are past the average.”

Of course, averages are not fail-safe predictors. “If you have two earthquakes a year apart, and then wait 99 years for the next earthquake, the average between those earthquakes is 50 years,” explains Ebel. “They don’t happen like clockwork.”

But lately Ebel has been noticing some disquieting trends. “I was looking at the earthquake activity in the New England region going back to 1979,” he says. “The time period from the ’70s to the mid ’80s was active — and we’ve had a few active spurts since then.”

By and large, however, the aughts had been marked by “very, very low activity.” Until just now. The past couple of years have seen an appreciable uptick in seismic restlessness in the region. Most notably, there was a series of quakes in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the fall of 2006, the largest of which measured 4.2. “We’ve started to come back up from this recent low period of activity.” he says.

“Sooner or later,” Ebel cautions, “we have to have another earthquake above magnitude 5 in order to catch up with the long-term statistics. Obviously, if that happens around Boston, there will be damage.”

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