Is the U.S. Earthquake Ready? Not by a Long Shot

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As Japan struggles to recover from its devastating earthquake, a new report released today says Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security about seismic activity.

The report, from the National Research Council, states that the last major quake to hit the United States was the 7.8 magnitude seism in San Francisco in 1906. The report was in the works before the Japanese tremblor, but the Japanese quake is likely to bring the report's findings extra attention.

Robert Hamilton, a retired seismologist and chairman of the committee of experts that compiled the report, told ABC News, "The lesson in Japan and the lessons from Hurricane Katrina show that when you go from a moderate event to a larger, greater event it can cause a lot of trouble."

In 2008, an earthquake exercise in California estimated that a 7.8 magnitude quake there would result in 1,800 deaths, $113 billion in damages to buildings and $70 billion in business interruption.

The National Academy of Sciences has come up with 20-year "road map" to build earthquake "resilience" in the United States. This doesn't mean earthquake-proofing everything, which is impossible, but taking steps to help lessen damage and hasten recovery.

"I think the key message is that there is a lot that could be done to improve the resilience to an earthquake disaster," Hamilton said.

The report offers 18 recommendations, which its authors believe would better prepare the United States to handle a major quake. They include additional research to help understand and predict quakes, testing and designing better building codes, updating standards to allow highways, electric grids and water systems to continue to function after an earthquake. The recommendations also call for better emergency response, including preparedness plans and exercises.

Hamilton said the report doesn't rate one recommendation over another, but that the effort must be comprehensive.

"Like preparing for hurricanes, it is an ongoing effort that never ends," he said.

Earthquake Preparedness Costs Money

Following the NAS road map wouldn't come cheap, though. Estimates put the first five years of the plan at $306 million a year.

"I've been around a long time, and I've learned not to be too optimistic about funding," said Hamilton, but attempts to cut money for earthquake preparedness will now be more difficult after what happened in Japan. Japan is considered a leader in earthquake preparedness, and yet even that country was decimated by the twin disasters of the quake and tsunami.

But some parts of the United States are better prepared than others.

"In California, they have done a lot," said Hamilton. "They have improved building codes that many communities, but not all, have adopted. In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, which are the most seismic areas, some steps have been taken, but it is by no means a comprehensive approach."

As for the rest of the country, "I'd say we're pretty much unprepared," said Hamilton.

The New Madrid faultline, which runs through the central Mississippi Valley, poses a major worry for seismologists. It was the site of major earthquake activity in 1811 and 1812.

"The New Madrid earthquakes, if those were to reoccur, that would be a disaster on the scale of what happened in Japan. Very little has been done to prepare for the occurrence of that event."

And what if a large quake were to occur on the densely populated East Coast?

"Structures just aren't designed to handle earthquakes," Hamilton said. Earthquake preparedness gets "worse the further east you go."

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