With all due respect to the Editors of ENR (particularly since they assign stories for me to write), their list of the Top Stories of 2011 omitted a highly important event—the East Coast Earthquake that occurred on August 23.
Now I know what you (and they) are going to say. Though the 5.8 temblor was felt from Georgia to the Great Lakes, it’s a mere blip on the seismometer compared with the year’s staggeringly destructive earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand, and Turkey, with the jolt to Easterners’ nerves far outpacing any major effect on buildings and infrastructure systems (much to the chagrin of those in the nation’s more seismically active areas).
Even the nuclear power station located a few miles from the quake’s epicenter, which shut down automatically as designed when the shaking began, is back on line, as are plans to add a third reactor. (Hardly in the league with Japan's retreat from nuclear power post-Fukushima Daiichi.)
What the quake may have lacked in potency, however, was offset by its effects on many high-profile structures in the Nation’s Capitol, including the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral, Union Station, and the campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home—all of which face long and costly repair processes.
And though the paucity of damage makes it easy to dismiss the earthquake as a once-in-a-generation occurrence in the seismically serene eastern states, an event of this type need not wreak havoc in the tradition sense to be significant. History tells us that we dismiss its implications at our peril.
Two hundred years ago this past December 16, the first of a series of earthquakes originated from the New Madrid Seismic Zone in Southeast Missouri. With an estimated magnitude of 7.0 or greater, the three main earthquakes and their potent aftershocks rattled residents from St. Louis to Boston, literally reshaping portions of the Midwest's topography in the process.
About 70 years later, it was the Southeast’s turn to “host” a seismic ride with an M7.3 earthquake centered in Charleston, N.C. And only a few years earlier, New York experienced its second M5.2 earthquake in 150 years.
It was until 1906 that the U.S. discovered what an earthquake could do to a “modern” city. Since then, the generations that have populated the western states have come to accept earthquakes as a fact of life, as evidenced in seismic design standards developed and applied by the region’s governments and design/construction industry.
But despite the best efforts of scientists to provide some kind of advance warning, earthquakes still occur with surprising suddenness. And they still cause millions upon millions of dollars of damage.
So compare the West Coast’s readiness with that of the East, where seismic requirements vary across jurisdictions and agencies, and the geologic conditions are more amenable to a single major subsurface movement having a far-reaching effect (literally and figuratively).
What might happen to Memphis, St. Louis, and other mid-country hubs should anything close to the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes occur? How will the East’s near infinite inventory of non-seismic bridges, buildings, rail lines, water and sewer systems, gas and power transmission lines, and other infrastructure respond? How will the disruption of cross-country transport affect commerce? And how much will it cost to repair it all?
Design and construction professionals like to think of themselves as problem-solvers. Well, the East’s seismic readiness is a problem that needs to be addressed, even if a major quake is another century away—or fated to occur before you finish reading this paragraph.
Appropriately for these times, it’s an issue fraught with uncertainty that joins an already crowded plate of challenges that the industry and their government counterparts are dealing with.
Still, the East Coast Earthquake should remind us that other urgencies shouldn’t preclude these critical questions from being asked and, hopefully, answered before another, more potent seismic event happens. And for that reason, it deserves to be ranked among the year’s major design and construction industry news stories.