Natural and Man Made Hazards
An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the Earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the Earth's surface. For hundreds of millions of years, the forces of plate tectonics have shaped the Earth as the huge plates that form the Earth's surface move slowly over, under, and past each other. Sometimes the movement is gradual. At other times, the plates are locked together, unable to release the accumulating energy. When the accumulated energy grows strong enough, the plates break free causing the ground to shake. Most earthquakes occur at the boundaries where the plates meet; however, some earthquakes occur in the middle of plates.
Ground shaking from earthquakes can collapse buildings and bridges; disrupt gas, electric, and phone service; and sometimes trigger landslides, avalanches, flash floods, fires, and huge, destructive ocean waves (tsunamis). Buildings with foundations resting on unconsolidated landfill and other unstable soil, and trailers and homes not tied to their foundations are at risk because they can be shaken off their mountings during an earthquake. When an earthquake occurs in a populated area, it may cause deaths and injuries and extensive property damage.
The Northridge, California, earthquake of January 17, 1994, struck a modern urban environment generally designed to withstand the forces of earthquakes. Its economic cost, nevertheless, has been estimated at $20 billion. Fortunately, relatively few lives were lost. Exactly one year later, Kobe, Japan, a densely populated community less prepared for earthquakes than Northridge, was devastated by the most costly earthquake ever to occur. Property losses were projected at $96 billion, and at least 5,378 people were killed. These two earthquakes tested building codes and construction practices, as well as emergency preparedness and response procedures.
Where earthquakes have occurred in the past, they will happen again. Learn whether earthquakes are a risk in your area by contacting your local emergency management office, American Red Cross chapter, state geological survey or department of natural resources.
Earthquakes strike suddenly, without warning. Earthquakes can occur at any time of the year and at any time of the day or night. On a yearly basis, 70 to 75 damaging earthquakes occur throughout the world. Estimates of losses from a future earthquake in the United States approach $200 billion.
There are 45 states and territories in the United States at moderate to very high risk from earthquakes, and they are located in every region of the country. California experiences the most frequent damaging earthquakes; however, Alaska experiences the greatest number of large earthquakesmost located in uninhabited areas. The largest earthquakes felt in the United States were along the New Madrid Fault in Missouri, where a three-month long series of quakes from 1811 to 1812 included three quakes larger than a magnitude of 8 on the Richter Scale. These earthquakes were felt over the entire Eastern United States, with Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi experiencing the strongest ground shaking.
Expect aftershocks. Aftershocks are smaller earthquakes that follow the main shock and can cause further damage to weakened buildings. After-shocks can occur in the first hours, days, weeks, or even months after the quake. Be aware that some earthquakes are actually foreshocks, and a larger earthquake might occur.
Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related injuries result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects as a result of the ground shaking, or people trying to move more than a few feet during the shaking. Much of the damage in earthquakes is predictable and preventable. We must all work together in our communities to apply our knowledge to building codes, retrofitting programs, hazard hunts, and neighborhood and family emergency plans.
Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.
Earthquakes occur most frequently west of the Rocky Mountains, although historically the most violent earthquakes have occurred in the central United States. All 50 states and all U.S. territories are vulnerable to earthquakes. Forty-one states or territories are at moderate to high risk.
The media can raise awareness about earthquakes by providing important information to the community. Here are some suggestions: