Earthquakes Are Inevitable; Destruction Is Not

A Bay Area scientist asseses where we are twenty years after Loma Prieta

Generic earthquake quake temblor
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What lessons have we learned in the twenty years since the Loma Prieta earthquake?  Other than the fact we’re not very good at building bridges quickly.

Quite a bit, according to Jack Boatwright, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey. “It’s quite remarkable,” he told an auditorium full of colleagues at the USGS headquarters in Menlo Park Thursday.

Boatwright was doing a run through of a lecture, “Meeting the Challenge of the Loma Prieta Earthquake,” he will also deliver to the general public.  His message to them, distilled to one sentence: earthquakes are inevitable, destruction is not.

Boatwright says technological advancements in his field since Loma Prieta have been remarkable. Shake maps, Boatwright’s particular area of expertise, are just one example.  A shake map is a graphic display of the intensity and scope of an earthquake created in almost real time. “We were waiting days, even weeks, after Loma Prieta for the type of information we now have at our fingertips in a matter of seconds,” Boatwright said.

Advances have also been made in the field of earthquake prediction. While short-term earthquake prediction, meaning a time-frame of hours or days, or even months, still remains elusive, Boatwright says long-term predictions are improving and could actually prove more valuable.

“If I had an hour’s notice that an earthquake was coming, what would I do? Go down to (San Francisco’s) warehouse district and yell at the buildings, warning them not to fall down,” Boatwright said.

Boatwright believes probability forecasts are much more useful. The latest probability forecast, updated in 2008, reports a 63-percent chance of a 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake in the Bay Area sometime in the next thirty years. “With that information, a person is much more likely to take the steps to properly prepare their homes and their businesses for an earthquake.”

Even so, earthquake preparedness in the Bay Area is a mixed bag. According to one study, less than twenty percent of the homes in Santa Clara are properly retrofitted for an earthquake. By comparison, more than eighty percent of the homes in Berkeley are ready.

Jack Boatwright delivers his lecture Thursday night at 7pm at the USGS headquarters at 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park.


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