The threat is real. It could happen here. Is the city ready?
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.”
This Friday, members of the DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness — a joint all-hazards training program run by the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Emergency Medical Services — will gather at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for a symposium titled “When Structures Fail: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Local Search and Rescue.”
Among the speakers will be Los Angeles Fire Department Assistant Chief Rick Warford, who’ll offer insights on how to respond to buildings felled or damaged by seismic upheaval. Let’s hope conference attendees will take copious notes.
Ready or not?
Both city and state responders are ready to go should the ground start to shake, says Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) in Framingham.
“We have all of the federal, state, and local, public and private and volunteer agencies report here in the event,” he says. “The National Guard, US Army Corps of Engineers, State Police, Massachusetts Highway, Department of Public Utilities, Red Cross, Salvation Army — essentially all of the assets of the Commonwealth — would be coordinated out of this facility.”
Make no mistake, “it’s the absolute worst type of event we could have. Our worst-case scenario is an earthquake at night in the winter. That would cover all the bad bases.”
Firefighting, evacuations, search and rescue, getting power up and running, debris management — “All of those [systems] that we utilize in other events would certainly come into play,” says Judge.
Mark Foster, team leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue Response System, says his team “still trains regularly for an earthquake-type scenario.” Even so, there have been no actual earthquakes in the US since the national unit was formed as a result of the 1989 World Series quake in Loma Prieta, California.