Illinois isn't ready if (or when) the big quake hits

If you haven't done all the earthquake preparation suggested as part of this week's Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, you aren't alone. Neither has our government, which launched a campaign advising people to "Drop, Cover and Hold On."

More than 1 million people across Midwest states are participating in ShakeOut events, says Marquita Hynes, an external affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She says the publicity will "raise awareness," and teach people how to be safer during a quake.

But awareness is not preparedness.

"We are as ill-prepared as ever," says Amr Elnashai, the University of Illinois professor who led quake research during his years as director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center. Working with an elite consortium of earthquake experts and university and government officials, the quake center, headquartered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed computer-modeling programs that predict what would happen during a Midwest earthquake. It's not a pretty picture.

When the New Madrid fault shook things up during the winter of 1811-12, a trio of powerful earthquakes, each larger than the 1906 quake that ravaged San Francisco, struck the central Mississippi Valley. With a magnitude as high as 8, the worst of those quakes rang church bells in Boston and caused structural damage as far away as Charleston, S.C. The area around the epicenter then was home to a few thousand American Indians and no modern buildings.

Today, a quake of 7.7 magnitude would kill 3,500 people and injure more than 82,000, damage 715,000 buildings, destroy hundreds of bridges, roads and pipelines, knock out electrical power to 2.6 million households, force 7.2 million people from their homes and cause a direct economic loss of $300 billion, with indirect losses likely to top $600 billion, according to the report.

"It is shocking. It is catastrophic," says Elnashai, who admits to getting "quite emotional" when he ponders the possibilities that would leave the Midwest in far worse shape than New Orleans was after Hurricane Katrina.

"This is many, many times more (damaging). Katrina didn't damage 715,000 buildings," Elnashai notes.

The report, funded by FEMA, was completed in 2009 but hasn't resulted in spending programs to shore up infrastructure and prepare for an earthquake, Elnashai says.

"The agency cannot respond to such an event," he says, conceding that the federal government and Illinois have "very significant" economic issues. Quake preparation "gets pushed aside."

Part of the reason for the malaise is because a society coping with the problems of today doesn't plan for an earthquake when there is no guarantee that earthquake will happen anytime soon. An earthquake is "just not something that's on people's radar screens," says Hynes of FEMA, which estimates we have a 25-40 percent chance of a damaging earthquake in the next 50 years.

Maybe we don't worry in the suburbs because a quake wouldn't make us suffer immediately. Skyscrapers might sway 3 feet in each direction, and suburban china cabinets and big-screen TVs might be thrown to the floor, but the real impact would come in the wake of the quake.

"While Chicago might not be shaken out of existence, they'll have no heat," Elnashai says, explaining how Downstate natural gas pipelines would rupture and crack. The suburbs would also become home to thousands of refugees.

"When people move out of their houses, they will overrun Chicago," predicts Elnashai, explaining how residents of Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana might flee to Chicago and the suburbs for housing, water, food and other help.

A minor earthquake centered near McHenry on Jan. 30 didn't scare us any more than the mild shakes felt in the suburbs in Illinois quakes in 1999 and 2004. Even a 5.2-magnitude quake that knocked Elnashai from his bed and rattled a few homes in the suburbs in 2008 didn't give us a hint of what we'll be in for when a major quake, such as the one 200 years ago, strikes again.

A 7.7-magnitude quake will have about 1,000 times the force of any of those quakes, Elnashai says.

Unfortunately, our ability to deal with that will not be 1,000 times better.

Earthquake felt in North suburbs

Did you feel last night's earthquake?

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.