Haiti boosts attention for Earthquake Awareness Month

Most seismic activity in Missouri takes place in the southeast.
MU Seismic Design Team members Shannon Felker and Alexis Dias work to repair damage to a model tower caused during shipping Feb. 3 in San Francisco. The team, which went on to win second place in the Seismic Design Competition, designed the tower to resist earthquakes. Courtesy of Matthew Wheeler

*See below for an interactive graphic illustrating the epicenters of earthquakes on the New Madrid Fault over the past 200 years.

Less than a month after a major earthquake devastated the island nation Haiti, Missouri officials have begun touring the state to raise awareness about the danger and destruction big tremors can cause.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources announced last week the start of Earthquake Awareness Month. Five informational events will be held around the state throughout the month to provide information on preparedness and the cause of earthquakes. The first two events, seminars last Friday and Saturday in St. Louis, focused on the damage a major earthquake could cause in a metropolitan area.

As the state held its first events, a group of MU students worked on designs to help buildings sustain the damaging waves of earthquakes. The MU Seismic Design Team won second place at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute's National Seismic Design competition last weekend, beating out the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finishing behind the University of California, San Diego.

MU team member Matthew Wheeler said the extra attention on earthquakes generated by the month's activities is a good thing because people often underestimate the danger of earthquakes in the Midwest.

"A lot of people think earthquakes are a just a California thing," he said. "But we've got the New Madrid Fault running right through our back door and could be affected by a major quake."

Most of the Missouri's seismic activity is concentrated in its southeast region, along the New Madrid seismic fault. The area was the site of four major earthquakes during the winter of 1811-1812, which ranks among the most intense tremors ever felt in the contiguous United States. Some towns in the bootheel region were destroyed and houses were damaged as far away as St. Louis.

After finishing 15th in an 18-team field last year, the team was happy to see improvement at this year's competition in San Francisco, said Wheeler, a senior majoring in civil engineering.

"We're very happy with the result," he said. "Our goal this year was just to improve and many of the other teams have been participating for years."

The team built a five-foot tower out of balsa wood, which was subjected to shaking similar to a major earthquake. The design was not severely damaged by the movement, boosting its score.

MODNR Geologist David Gaunt said inquiries from state residents about how to prepare for earthquakes have quadrupled since the heavily publicized January earthquake. Gaunt said turnout at the Friday event was higher than expected, with about 400 to 500 people present.

"Most people are aware of the New Madrid seismic zone and want to know what would happen if we had a Haiti-like situation on the New Madrid," Gaunt said. "What I'm trying to get out to people is that we plan for this on a daily basis."

Although Columbia would not be as severely affected as cities near Arkansas and Tennessee, Gaunt said it would experience some shaking during an earthquake. Researchers, such as MU geology professor Mian Liu, are still studying activity along the fault.

In a paper published in November, Liu said the small quakes felt along the New Madrid fault in recent years are actually aftershocks of the quake two centuries ago. Liu said this means the quakes are not as helpful in predicting when the next big earthquake will strike.

"We've said they could be aftershocks," he said. "The characteristics of the seismicity of the New Madrid fault since the earthquakes in 1812 are consistent with aftershocks."

Interactive graphic

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

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