Earthquake: East Coast Cities Not Prepared, Say Experts

Eastern Earthquakes, like the 5.8 magnitude quake that hit today, are rare.

ByABC News
August 23, 2011, 3:18 PM

Aug. 23, 2011 — -- Eastern earthquakes, such as the 5.8 magnitude quake that hit Virginia and surrounding states, are rare. There has not been a quake that strong there since 1897.

"I can't remember an event that large on the East Coast," said Paul Segall, a Stanford geophysicist who studies earthquake faults. He called Tuesday's event "a significant earthquake for that part of the world. It could do significant damage."

But even smaller quakes in the eastern U.S. can cause damage, because eastern cities aren't as earthquake-ready as their West Coast counterparts.

"Basically, the building stock in the eastern part of the United States is not built for seismic shaking like we are in California," he said. "For that reason alone, we would expect more damage."

Asked where the vulnerabilities lie, he said, "The kinds of buildings we would worry about are unreinforced masonry: unreinforced brick or unreinforced stone or concrete that doesn't have enough rebar in it."

States along the Pacific Coast have strong rules for what buildings must be able to withstand. Newer buildings in California are buttressed but also designed to sway instead of snap if the ground shakes beneath them.

Older Eastern cities -- such as New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston -- have many more buildings made of brick, which can crumble in a violent earthquake. There's been no impetus to upgrade them.

Around Washington, D.C., where there was significant shaking and many evacuations, there's "a lot of old brick buildings built before anybody worried about those kinds of things," Segall said.

"People haven't invested in retrofitting as we have in California," he said.

For cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest, which had some of the historically strongest quakes that occurred in 1811-12 along the New Madrid fault, forcing the Mississippi River to begin flowing north for a while, today's quake may be "a good warning."

Disaster plans for most East Coast cities are less focused on quakes than other potential disasters.

"It's not good," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "Because resources are limited, because emergency agencies have had to make budget cuts, they have to make tough choices and plan for what's most likely.

"In California, that would mean focusing on earthquakes," he said. "In New York, that would mean worrying about coastal storms and terrorist attacks.

"But that doesn't mean there's no chance of something else happening. You're picking and choosing what to plan for. And essentially, you're taking a shot."