Hearing Exposes Ugly Realities of U.S. Unpreparedness for Coming Earthquakes
April 8, 2011 • 11:07AM

At a time when the US can expect Japan-magnitude quakes to strike the West Coast, a Congressional hearing today exposed the ugly reality of utter US unpreparedness. And yet if Japan had not been as well-prepared as it was, loss of life would have been ten times greater.

At the hearing on earthquake preparedness of a subcommittee of the House Science Committee, ranking member David Wu (D-Ore) said that Oregon could expect a Japan-style earthquake, magnitude 9.0, at any time, and that it will likely trigger a devastating tsunami which could overwhelm the Oregon coast in less that 15 minutes, resulting in thousands of fatalities and billions of dollars in damages.

Oregon's chief geologist, Dr. Vicki McConnell, noted that the Cascadia and Aleutian Alaska faults were very similar to the one which just triggered Japan's quake.

Witness Chris Poland, a civil engineer and chairman of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Advisory Committee, included the following in his prepared testimony: "Are we prepared? No."

Poland was asked where the US stands in earthquake preparedness on a scale of 1-100. His answer was about 25; he said we know many of the measures that should be taken, but they're not being implemented. He said that California was at about 50-60 in safety, but only about 20 in "resiliency," meaning the ability to recover. (New Orleans, anyone?)

Dr. McConnell confirmed studies showing that up to 38% of Oregon's highway bridges would fail in an earthquake, cutting off numerous cities; it would take 3-5 years to repair them all.

Witness Jim Mullen, president of the National Emergency Management Association, said that he was working hand-in-hand with West Coast governments on "drop, cover and hold" training for earthquakes, and on emergency evacuation plans, but noted that many communities totally lack "vertical evacuation sites" to escape a tsunami; no such structure exists in Long Beach, for example.

But asked about the safety of nuclear plants, Poland noted that these buildings have been subject to the most rigorous design process, calling them "the safest buildings we have."

Although Barack Obama has effectively outlawed research on earthquake prediction, subcommittee chairman Quayle (R-Ind), the son of the former Vice-President, listed prediction of earthquakes first among his list of goals in opening the hearing. And Oregon's Dr. McConnell pointed repeatedly to NASA and its DesDinI satellite, killed by Obama, as vital for earthquake and volcano warning.

Rep. Wu has introduced a bill, HR 1379, which would strongly upgrade NEHRP funding, and Sen. Boxer (CA) and others have introduced an indentical bill in the Senate, which will be marked up in the Senate next week.