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California and the West

State at Epicenter of National Quake Damage Survey

Study: California can expect 75% of all damage, and half of that would be in the Southland, the report says.

September 20, 2000|USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

The first national survey of earthquake risk suggests that while some areas of the country, such as Boston and New York, have their share of risk, 75% of all losses are expected to occur in California.

And, according to a state report released concurrently, those losses will be high. Earthquake damage to buildings alone in the state is expected to add up to $3.9 billion per year, according to the state report. Add in damage to contents and the toll rises to $4.7 billion.

Half of that damage would be in Southern California, one-third of it in Los Angeles County alone. The county's estimated damage toll per year is $1.6 billion, or $180 per resident, swamping San Francisco's $357 million per year and Orange County's $350 million per year.

"There are two reasons for L.A. County having the highest potential damage," said Michael Reichle, a seismologist with the California Department of Conservation's Division of Mines and Geology. "Its seismic potential and the sheer number of people."

The state report is to be issued today in conjunction with a survey on national quake risk by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The national study shows that the threat of severe damage from temblors is not confined to California or Los Angeles.

Other cities at risk include Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Tacoma, Wash.; Las Vegas; Anchorage; Reno; Memphis, Tenn.; Charleston, S.C.; Albuquerque; Newark, N.J.; Honolulu and Atlanta.

"This national report tells people in the rest of the country that earthquakes are not just California's problem, they are the nation's problem," Reichle said.

An earthquake near St. Louis, for example, could be devastating because of the makeup of the soils underneath the city and because few buildings in the region have seismic retrofitting.

FEMA Director James Lee Witt said that although the chance of experiencing an earthquake has remained fairly constant over the years, the risk of damage in many areas has increased substantially.

"That's because of the increase of urban development in high seismic hazard areas and the vulnerability of older buildings, which were not built to adequate seismic code," he said.

The FEMA researchers used U.S. Geological Survey data on the earthquake hazards of about 150,000 points across the country and added information about local building inventories, economic data and other details to estimate potential losses. It is the first study of its kind to apply probability data to earthquakes rather than depend only on historical data to estimate future losses.

Having damage estimates, even if they are rough, will help political leaders decide how to manage, pay for and possibly mitigate earthquake risk, Reichle said.

The FEMA study estimates the nation's annual earthquake property damage losses at about $4.4 billion. That compares to annual flood losses of $5.2 billion between 1989 and 1998, according to National Weather Service data. The National Climatic Data Center estimates $5.4 billion in annual hurricane losses for that period.

The 1994 Northridge quake killed 57 people and caused an estimated $40 billion in damage.

Earthquakes that vie for recognition as the most powerful in North America were not in California. One series of quakes rocked the New Madrid fault in Missouri, near its border with Tennessee, in 1811-12, and the second devastated the Anchorage area in 1964.

One of the New Madrid quakes reportedly caused the Mississippi River to flow backward for a several days, according to some reports, but there were few people or buildings in the area then. Today a similar quake could severely damage the area from St. Louis to Memphis.

Other significant quakes outside California:

* Cape Ann, Mass., Nov. 18, 1755. Earth movement was felt from Nova Scotia to Chesapeake Bay, with the most damage in the Boston area.

* Charleston, S.C., Aug. 31, 1886. Sixty people were killed and most of the buildings in the city were damaged. It was felt as far away as New York, Boston, Milwaukee and Havana.

* Olympia, Wash., April 13, 1949. Eight people were killed.

* Seattle, April 29, 1965. Shaking was felt over 130,000 square miles.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Quake Costs

A state report shows that California leads the nation with $3.9 billion in potential annual damage to buildings from earthquakes. A federal study's estimates of yearly damage for other states:

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