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

Not by a long shot, a new report finds.

ByABC News
March 30, 2011, 10:40 AM

March 30, 2011 -- 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.