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North East Earthquake: The Real Hazards are Beneath Us

Top-5 list of issues responders and planners need to address

A magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the East coast of the United States on August 24. The United States geological survey indicates that this quake was felt in 25 states reaching from the deep South to New England and possibly extending into Canada. Impacting more than 12 million people, this was the most powerful earthquake to be felt since 1944. It also happens to be the second earthquake felt in western New York in the last year. Its enough to make you ask: what if it did happen here?

NOAA photo
 E. L.Quarantelli (Disaster Research Center of the University of Delaware) warned us of the increasing impact of natural disasters. In his paper "Future Disasters in the United States: More and Worse" (1988),  he suggests that natural disasters will be more intense simply because they have more to impact in today's society. Again, this was written in 1988 and since that time we've seen our share of devastating natural events. We've also seen an increase in co-occurring natural events; earthquakes leading to tsunamis leaving to technological failures such as nuclear power plant failures. For more details, see Three Problems for Planning 2011. Related: They're going to get worse. (MJ July, 2010)
Critical Infrastructure:
the evidence of the quake was obvious in many buildings and while many monuments and tourist attractions were closed, the real concern is the impact the buildings of critical infrastructure… hospitals, for example.The recent decision from hurricane Katrina (Tenant Healthcare) has made us aware of the expectations for hospitals and healthcare facilities to be prepared for naturally occurring events. Furthermore, it seems the public has an expectation that hospitals will be in area refuge or shelter during crisis situations.

Co-occurring natural events:
Hurricane Irene is also projected to impact the East Coast of the United States within the next week. Changes in weather are often the most overlooked hazards in emergency response. With predicted sustained winds of over 85 miles an hour, hurricane Irene certainly has the potential for increased damage to structures weakened by the earthquake.

What lies beneath?
What we haven't seen (perhaps we haven't looked for yet) is what lies beneath…  under our feet, below ground is where we may find the true potential hazards from this earthquake. Quarantelli reminds us that natural disasters will simply be worse because they have more to impact. We have to keep in mind that there will be an increased impact on technology. Perhaps most importantly, is the impact to aging infrastructure. Natural gas lines,  power distribution systems, sanitation, bridges/tunnels and highway overpasses have all been cited as aging pieces of infrastructure. The impact of this earthquake may be harder to measure in this capacity as these items are mainly underground and problems may not be readily observable.

Communications difficulties have to be considered a given in crisis situations. Even without widespread death and destruction cellular service was rapidly overwhelmed with the number of calls made  during and after the quake.  Social Media was also widely used to communicate and twitter was bombarded with “tweets” during and after the quake.

 Access to goods and services:
Many retail outlets including gas stations and supermarkets lost power making it impossible for people to purchase fuel and causing untold losses of frozen food and other consumables. While the inconvenience in this case appeared minor, consider the impact had a large scale evacuation been required… with limited availability of fuel for vehicles. Also consider the possibilities of prolonged sheltering without ready access to refrigeration.

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