Earthquakes Serve as a Safety Reminder
Two hundred years ago, three increasingly massive earthquakes in the U.S. region known as New Madrid that is not usually associated even today with seismic dangers had a handful of scared pioneers convinced that Judgment Day was at hand. During the most severe of the quakes, once-fertile prairie land along the Mississippi River turned inside out as pressure from a collision of weakening plates miles from within the earth caused geysers of sand and sulfur to spring from the soil, massive trees to bend and break, and a mighty river to swallow a small town whole.
“During 2011, earthquakes were recorded in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, areas not usually associated with seismic activity,” said International Code Council CEO Richard P. Weiland. “We know if history was to repeat itself along the Madrid Fault line it would be one of the worst disasters in American history. Yet despite everything we have witnessed and know code officials in the New Madrid region struggle to persuade local and state governments to keep and enforce the seismic provisions that are in building safety codes.”
Through public/private sector collaboration, the International Code Council provides support to government by developing codes that allow for safe and sustainable construction. As a result, government does not take on the high cost of developing its own codes and benefits from code uniformity that encourages local, affordable construction growth.
Geologists determined the Madrid quakes that struck during the winter of 1811-1812 were not the first major seismic events in that area. And they’re pretty sure they won’t be the last. The geology of the area shows that quakes ranging from 7.0 to 8.0 occurred along that fault every 500 or so years before that, according to Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Memphis-based Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
Does that mean the Mississippi River valley area along the New Madrid Fault is safe for another 300 years? Hard to say, Wilkinson said. Some geologists say there’s a 10 percent chance a major seismic event will occur there within the next 50 years. Others say maybe 1,000 years, based on the slowness of the shifting plates. He said one thing is for sure: Very few people expected a 5.8-magnitude quake to hit Virginia in August.
“The Virginia earthquake was a wake-up call that when it does happen (along the New Madrid Fault), it will be big,” Wilkinson said. “It could be 500 years (from now), or it could be tomorrow.”
Seismic forecasting is a relatively new science. As technology improves, it is likely areas where the threat of damage is greater than initially thought will be found, and vice versa. In California, the U.S. government has been quietly working to test an earthquake early-warning system.
Quake-prone areas such as California have built to better seismic standards for decades. Codes specific to seismic activity, such as the Code Council’s International Building Code and International Residential Code are relatively new and haven’t been updated by communities since 2000, let alone adopted in some areas.
Upgraded seismic codes can be expensive, and Wilkinson noted that cash-strapped communities have to balance cost with risk. Lack of dollars is among the reasons why some communities in the New Madrid Fault crosshairs are willing to gamble that the “Big One” won’t come anytime soon.
The International Code Council is a member-focused association dedicated to helping the building safety community and construction industry provide safe and sustainable construction through the development of codes and standards used in the design, build and compliance process. Most U.S. communities and many global markets choose the International Codes.