As East Coast Marks Five-Year Earthquake Anniversary, Experts Across the U.S. Advance the Cause

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Today is the five-year anniversary of the 5.8M earthquake near Mineral, Virginia—the most widely felt quake in U.S. history, with shaking from New England to Chicago. The temblor damaged heritage buildings including the National Cathedral and Washington Monument, and shook up public perceptions of earthquake geography at the same time.

Since then, leaders have advanced policies that reflect their understanding that seismic risk is a national problem, not just a West Coast concern. One shining example is the new seismic standard for federal buildings showcased by the White House during a resilience summit in February of this year. The Executive Order creating the new standard effectively decreed that government should “walk the talk” with respect to stronger building codes by ensuring that public structures reflect current codes too.

While logical, this was not an easy task, and we applaud those that led the charge.

Also encouraging, there is now progress in the development of a U.S.-based Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system as well. This is essential as just five to seven seconds of notice before an earthquake could prevent trains from derailing. The EEW system can trigger automatic closure of elevator doors, prevent fire station doors from jamming (trapping needed response vehicles), and it can lower crossing gates for bridges too.

These actions could mean the difference between life and death for thousands in a seismic event.

Equally important, sustained efforts are ongoing to remind those in regions like Western Tennessee, part of the greater New Madrid Seismic Zone, that earthquakes pose a real danger. Credible experts believe that catastrophic loss of life and property in Memphis would most certainly be compounded by global business interruption when the ground there rumbles once again.

I’ve written in this blog before about Memphis, and in our commentary series as well. Thirty percent of all U.S. goods flow through there each year. It is the location of the world’s second busiest cargo airport, and center of the FedEx Express global headquarters. Imagine the worldwide commerce disruption when the movement of packages and shipments stops, even for a day.

So as you can see, we’ve made real progress on earthquake safety and resilience during the past five years, but we have much more to do.

With that in mind, our organization led an elite array of partners and sponsors this May to present the quadrennial 2016 National Earthquake Conference (NEC) and address this question, What’s New, What’s Next, What’s Your Role in Building a National Strategy?

Together, we drew more than 350 global experts on the scientific and practical challenges wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis, and catastrophic risk in general. And the response from the gathered academics, analysts, businesses, communicators, elected officials, emergency managers, engineers, experts, insurers, journalists, modelers, product manufacturers, psychologists, responders, scientists, and volunteers was tremendous. These individuals participated because they share our dread of what will happen when the next “big one” hits.

You can feel the sense of urgency in this brief video.

The NEC drew an impressive array of journalists and news organizations as well, including the BBC, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine and many more. As they took their seats, our first keynote speaker, Dr. Tom Jordan of USC Southern California Earthquake Center (global headquarters of the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill) answered the question, What’s New? with a presentation of new science showing how the South San Andreas fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll.”

He explained through vivid maps and visuals how we are not just due, but overdue, for a major earthquake there.

We anticipated news media interest in the conference, and Dr. Jordan’s presentation ensured it. After award-winning Los Angeles Times Reporter Ron Lin posted this riveting article about Dr. Jordan’s briefing, an explosion of national and international news headlines followed. “Locked, loaded, and ready to roll” dominated the national news dialogue for days and weeks to come.

Mr. Lin’s article sharpened audience attention (in-person and virtual) as the rest of us went on to highlight best practices and challenges in building codes, communication, emergency management, outreach, policy, product innovation, research, and science.

Ten days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Jerry Brown planned to infuse the EEW system with $10 million in state dollars. This was a departure from the California governor’s previous position. Next, Congressman Adam Schiff voiced his intention to rekindle his effort to get Oregon and Washington state leaders to support the EEW system.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, congressional leaders signaled active support for National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) reauthorization. This is critical as NEHRP is the foundation for essential research that can advance breakthroughs like EEW systems, as well as seismic safety and resilience overall.

The 2016 NEC generated productive policy momentum that complements decades of work by the earthquake community, and experts like Dr. Lucy Jones. Today, as we recall the earthquake that emanated from rural Virginia five years ago, we must accept that earthquakes could happen nearly anywhere and, we must be ready when they do.

(Editor’s note: The preliminary media impact report from the 2016 National Earthquake Conference is available here. The full report and edited videos of program will be available later this year.)

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