Midwest quake may devastate

By Lisa Chung

Devastating earthquakes in the Midwest region are very rare, but researchers at the University are investigating the effects of a potential “big one,” an earthquake that could have deadly effects in eight states.

The Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University has been contracted by the Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct the study.

This earthquake could be activated by the New Madrid fault, which lies near southern Illinois and northern Missouri, said Amr Elnashai, director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center and professor of engineering.

The study is acknowledged as the “largest, most complex emergency management planning initiative ever undertaken” in the U.S, according to a press release by the earthquake center.

Each year, the New Madrid fault spawns hundreds of earthquakes of small magnitudes, Elnashai said.

In 1811 and 1812, the New Madrid fault produced a series of earthquakes with a magnitude of 8.0 that struck the Midwest, said Omar Pineda, the project manager.

“The shaking of this earthquake was great enough to reach Washington D.C.,” Elnashai said.

If an earthquake like that hits now, the consequences would be devastating due to increased population density, he said. None of the buildings in the region can resist earthquakes, he added.

The study will recount the regional inventory in eight different states to realistically estimate losses and impacts of a massive earthquake, Elnashai said.

After studying simulations of an earthquake with a 7.7 magnitude, the effects have been tremendous, said Lisa Cleveland, lead researcher of the project and a graduate student.

The region is not at all prepared for an earthquake, Elnashai said.

“Overall, we estimate a direct economic loss of $50-60 billion, meaning damaged assets and costs of replacing the damage,” said Elnashai.

“But, the effects of earthquakes are much more because there is loss of business, international trade, national trade, income and more,” Elnashai said.

The researchers have also estimated concrete losses that could result from the earthquake.

“Calculations show that 100,000 people will be displaced from their homes, there will be up to 30,000 casualties and 100-200,000 collapses of buildings,” said Cleveland.

Although emergency response plans at the state and county levels exist, none are based on a quantitative study that estimates actual impact, Elnashai said.

“The data collected will be used to design response and recovery plans, which will then be employed by state managers to develop catastrophic planning in their (respective) states,” Pineda said.

He added that the reason this is the most complex study ever undertaken is because “(it) will benefit more than 44 million people.”

Unfortunately, the project focuses on predicting the impact of an earthquake and is not aiming to predict when “the big one” will hit.

Predicting an earthquake’s occurrence is nearly impossible, Elnashai said.

“To have a successful prediction, you have to calculate the location, magnitude and the time all at the same time, accurately,” he said.

Even for an earthquake that has already occurred, people do not agree on its exact location and magnitude, he added.