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.)

Even As the Ground Shakes Near Memphis, Leaders Chose Denial Over Disaster Safety

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Photo Credit: WBIR

Last week, I used this forum to discuss the first of our six recommendations to innovate the U.S. building code system published in our new commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right. This week, I am scheduled to discuss our second recommendation:

2. Optimize property protection opportunities in model   code and standard development by balancing all of the existing values, including public health, safety, and welfare.

This is a timely discussion in light of action underway at the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission where it is clear that some Tennessee officials are missing the critical linkage between public policy and disaster safety.

The purpose of the International Residential Code is “to establish minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare….” Unfortunately, the issue of cost is often the loudest argument against the adoption of modern building codes. But the welfare of the family, or families, during the expected lifespan of a home should be given equal weight in building code considerations.

Today, however, the upfront cost to the builder or first buyer has eclipsed the critical, long-term value of welfare.

And this is exactly the problem in Memphis and Shelby County, where city council members and county commissioners are poised to complete passage of amendments that will further weaken home bracing requirements by as much as 50 percent.

Some background: In 2014, after decades of delay, these same leaders implemented a compromise that required modern earthquake bracing for the first time. However, that compromise fell short of the model code by about 30 percent, allowing homebuilders to construct homes below the suggested levels of minimum, national life-safety codes.

Now they are moving to further reduce requirements essential for safety in not just earthquakes, but floods, and high winds. They are suggesting short-term cost savings as a justification for this eye-popping action, ignoring long-term home quality.

They are also placing unknowing families in potentially deadly jeopardy.

According to news reports, Councilman Reid Hedgepeth constructed a $750,000 home last summer, and identified the cost for seismic requirements at about $10,000, or 1.33% of the total construction cost. By his support of the new amendments, are he and his peers (including Councilman Jim Strickland) saying that a one percent savings is worth the risk that a home will collapse in an earthquake, float away in a flood, or tear apart in a windstorm?

This latest Memphis situation is another incident in a long-running back and forth between local homebuilder interests and a coalition of academics, architects, emergency managers, engineers, risk communicators, safety advocates, and scientific researchers. The coalition has gone to extraordinary lengths to work with local builders and elected officials by providing extensive, third-party studies to overcome the fears of undue cost; by bringing forth national experts with unassailable building science performance data to explain the value of the new building practices; and much more.

Even after all this sincere effort, and a 3.5 magnitude earthquake next door in Tipton County this week, local leaders are still willing to abandon the needed upgrades.

Last August, the South Napa Valley earthquake provided proof positive of phenomenal building performance driven by use of the new model codes. Sadly, Memphis and Shelby County have gone barely a year with their improved code, and soon they will again build in a way that is certain to fall short when the worst happens there.

According to the Oxford dictionary, welfare is defined as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or a group.”

With the amendments close to passage, all we are left to do is etch the names of the officials involved into the public record. That way, when the worst happens, we can recognize the path to diminished “health, happiness, and fortunes” for residents of Western Tennessee. 

A Multi-hazard World Means Buildings Must Multitask

5-18-15 Matthew Wall for LCH Blog

When we think of traditional Texas perils, high wind, hail, hurricanes and wildfires are top of mind. But, as Texas has gone from one earthquake “felt” in 100 years to more than 70 in the last ten, awareness is shifting to include seismic events too.

In fact, a recent USGS report identifies 17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity.

That’s why we asked Dr. Michael Blanpied of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to join us for our March 31 Texas State Collaborative (TSC) meeting in Austin where he very capably addressed the issue of “potentially induced seismicity”, and seismic activity in general.

Dr. Blanpied explained how USGS creates and updates seismic hazard maps every six years. This is essential information as seismic design ratings used for building codes are based on these maps. Through the 2008 hazard map update, earthquakes caused by industrial practices were removed from the analysis if certain conditions were met. This eliminated most earthquakes associated with mining, oil and gas production, and fluid injection. This was deemed to be the appropriate approach for designing long-term building codes, so now USGS is developing models to forecast the extent of hazardous ground shaking in the areas of recorded, significant, increased seismic activity.

A final hazard model is scheduled for release at the end of 2015.

We had a vivid reminder of the relevance of Dr. Blanpied’s presentation on May 7 when a 4.0 magnitude earthquake occurred 30 miles southwest of Dallas in Johnson County. In the aftermath of this earthquake, the Texas Railroad Commission required the operators of nearby disposal wells to perform testing regarding the effect of wastewater injection into subsurface rock formations. Thankfully, the earthquake caused no injuries, but it did cause minor damage to the foundation of two mobile homes.

And Texas isn’t the only state to experience increased seismicity. The Oklahoma Geologic Survey identified 5,415 earthquakes in 2014, and this tally omits many smaller earthquakes. The Central U.S. has seen a hundred-fold increase in earthquakes to the extent that Oklahoma now exceeds California in earthquake activity. Yes, you read that right.

This issue is driving complex scientific and social questions, especially as credible studies have now linked seismic activity to wastewater injection. However, our focus is not on causation, but whether or not the built environment is prepared regardless of causation.

Our TSC initiative is dedicated to helping Texas address shortcomings in the existing building code system, so do we now add earthquake to the mix? If so, where do we begin?

We are confronting a compounding natural hazard problem, but we cannot take our focus off the traditional perils either. The same evening of the 4.0 magnitude earthquake on May 7 in North Texas, at least two confirmed tornadoes touched down with severe weather continuing into the weekend.

This example represents a growing challenge facing disaster resilience advocates across the globe: what is the ideal mix of building science to address earthquake, high wind, and hail too?

The issue came up last year during our public awareness work with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Like Texas, Virginia has a coastline vulnerable to hurricanes, and residents have experienced deadly high-wind events, including tornadoes and the 2012 Derecho. In 2011, they experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Mineral that is considered the “most widely felt earthquake in U.S. history”. Even so, high wind is still the most common concern. That’s why we worked to identify a “two-for-one” building science solution to drive our messaging.

This video is the result of our effort and highlights what families can do to mitigate against both high wind and earthquakes. It is focused on one concept—a continuous load path, or a well-connected home where the roof ties to walls and walls tie to the foundation. The building principle is not new, but talking about it for high wind and seismic safety in the same conversation is atypical.

Texas and Virginia share a similar challenges regarding the need for integrated hazard mitigation solutions, and they are not alone. With or without induced seismicity, earthquakes can occur nearly anywhere. The same goes for high wind.

This uncertainty increases our resolve to find solutions that work for every location. We must build in a way that adequately addresses risks, even when they overlap. Delivering on multi-hazard mitigation solutions will challenge the disaster-resilience community, but we have the right team in place.

Let’s give families options that fit their reality even if it’s complicated.

Earthquake Safety Messaging: Stand up. Speak up. Spread the Word.

Drop, Cover, and Hold On is the official message to families in earthquake-prone areas because we do not want people outside when building exteriors, roads, or even bridges may collapse.

And the recent magnitude 6.0 earthquake that rocked California’s Napa Valley is a sobering example of why. Experts agree that if the Napa Valley quake had struck at 3:20 p.m. instead of 3:20 a.m. that people who are typically dining, shopping, and walking near the historic downtown buildings would have been injured and likely killed. Even so, more than 200 people were injured in Napa, including a young boy who was struck by debris from a collapsing chimney.

When an earthquake occurs, we in the disaster safety movement know that we cannot drop out of sight, take cover, and hold on to the hope that the current crisis, or next one, will pass without severe damage or injuries.

It’s exactly at those times—the days and weeks immediately following such events—that we stand up, speak up, and spread the word.

We do a good job of pushing the safety message out before the earthquakes strike. For example, the Great ShakeOut drills reach millions across the globe annually. But, it is essential that we also quickly deliver messages across the U.S. immediately after an event because that is when we have the public’s rapt attention.

It’s human nature that when we associate any message with a real event, we listen better, learn more, and remember. That is why we leverage the “teaching moment” after a disaster by delivering messages about how to be safe and resilient.

I was gratified to see how many news organizations shared the information in the advisory that we sent out immediately after the Napa Valley earthquake. We got the attention of people in states outside of California by highlighting the U.S. Geological Survey maps that indicate 42 of 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing a significant seismic event during a 50-year span, which also happens to be the lifetime of a typical building.

It is tempting to remain quiet in the aftermath of any disaster out of respect for those affected, but if we did, we’d lose one of the best opportunities to motivate the public to take action. In earthquake zones, we want people to question how their building was constructed. Do they enjoy the safety of modern, model building codes and construction practices, or should they start planning to retrofit? Moreover, once they determine if the structure is sound, we want them to undertake nonstructural mitigation through simple, inexpensive measures like securing ceiling fans, chandeliers, bookcases, heavy objects, and breakables.

And consistent with the common occurrence of post-quake fires like we saw in Napa Valley, we want business owners and residents to learn where and how to shut off their natural gas supply.

When the earthquake fades from the headlines, many residents, even if physically and emotionally shaken, tend to think that it won’t happen again. They go about their lives, as if they were somehow made safer by the fact that a rare disaster event had just occurred.

That may be a natural reaction and understandable coping mechanism. And sometimes they are right. But sometimes, unfortunately, they are wrong. That’s why we must stand up, speak up, and spread the word until everyone understands why.