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Special Report

May 19, 2013

The Big One: Preparing for mid-America earthquake

(Continued)

Even people uninitiated in earthquakes are somewhat prepared, according to FEMA, based on experience with other disasters including tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

That may be true, but earthquakes present their own complications, said Amr S. Elnashai, outgoing director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois. Earthquakes have aftershocks and cause landslides, for example.

For all its planning, said Elnashai, “the Midwest is more aware but it is not better prepared.” There has not been much work to improve and retrofit pipelines, most buildings, or critical facilities like schools, banks and chemical plants.

The region is also unprepared for the politics of response. A large-scale New Madrid earthquake could devastate portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. These states are members of the consortium that is preparing for a major disaster in the Midwest.

The clear problem will be allocating resources. Would Memphis and St. Louis get most of the attention after a major earthquake, while small towns and vast rural areas are just as badly affected?

“For a small community like Marion, Ill., versus a Bloomington, Ind., versus a Paducah, Ky., who gets those resources? Who makes the decision?” said James M. Wilkinson Jr., the consortium’s executive director. The consortium has started to address those questions.

In the end, preparedness only gets us so far, said Lueker, the emergency management director in Jefferson County, Ill. He noted what happened in 2011 on the northeast coast of earthquake-prone Japan, where some who heard sirens going off after a magnitude 9.0 quake still stood and watched an approaching tsunami.

“They’re the best-trained people in the world, and they still died,” he said. “As well trained as those people are, it makes me wonder how well we can be prepared.”

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