Sunday, July 09, 2000

Earthquake risk exists in Ohio

Western half of state is second-most active seismic zone in eastern U.S.

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

        ANNA, Ohio — For more than 60 years, Jake Boyer has tried not to wander too far inside large buildings. He likes to be near the doors for quick escape. But who can blame him? In March 1937, Mr. Boyer was sitting in his third-grade classroom when one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit Ohio struck.

        It toppled desks, knocked books off shelves and created a thick cloud of dust from falling plaster.

        “The thing I distinctly remember was the noise. I'll never forget it,” said Mr. Boyer, 72. “It was rumbling. It's hard for me to explain that sound. You don't think it's going to quit.”

        A week later, the largest earthquake recorded in Ohio — magnitude 5.5 — shook Anna in the middle of the night. Chimneys fell over, two churches and the Town Hall were heavily damaged, and what remained of the school was destroyed. Luckily, no one was killed or severely injured.

        Ohio has had at least 120 earthquakes since the Revolutionary War, resulting in damage and injuries. However, many Ohioans give little thought to the risk.

        Laura Yelton, an agent for State Farm Insurance in nearby St. Marys, where an earthquake struck in 1986, said fewer than one-third of her roughly 300 homeowner-insurance policyholders choose earthquake coverage.

        “My general feeling is that most people are like, "Nah, that's not going to happen here,'” Ms. Yelton said.

        Most homeowners' insurance policies in Ohio do not automatically provide earthquake protection. In 1998, Ohioans paid $16 million in premiums for earthquake insurance, about $1.40 a year per person, compared with nearly $12 per person or $387 million in California, where the danger is both bigger and better known.

        Because many Midwesterners have not experienced a major earthquake, and there is no regular reminder of the danger, “It's not a real hot button,” said John Griffin of the National Association of Independent Insurers. “They're much more concerned about things like tornadoes, crashed cars, theft and fires.”

        Ohio had very limited monitoring of ground motion for most of the 1990s after the University of Michigan and John Carroll University stopped operating their network of seismographs in the state.

        The Ohio Seismic Network, a chain of 16 earthquake-monitoring stations around the state operated by volunteers, was established in January 1999 with $78,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

        It is designed to precisely identify the zones of highest risk and to supply information to the public quickly after an earthquake. Coordinator Michael Hansen said the only activity detected so far was a small earthquake east of Cleveland last year.

        “It bothers me when it's been too quiet for too long,” he said. “You're sort of waiting for something to happen.”

        Western Ohio is the second most active earthquake zone in the eastern half of the country after the New Madrid fault in Missouri. The area around Anna has been the epicenter of more than 40 quakes.

        The monitoring station nearest Anna sits just a few miles away, on the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys at Wright State University's lake campus. That's where geology professor Kenton Strickland and Michael Baxter wait for “the big one.”

        The two monitor a seismometer, a foot-long metal arm suspended from a spring and positioned between two magnets. The device records ground movements and feeds the information into a computer.

        “We're not anywhere near predicting earthquakes yet,” Mr. Baxter said. “But it gives you the ability to have an idea when there's activity going on,” even it it's not strong enough for people to feel it.

        State geologist Thomas Berg said the rift near Anna is similar to the one in New Madrid, where in 1811 the largest earthquake in the continental United States hit.

        Mr. Berg said he expects to see a major earthquake in the Midwest during his lifetime.

        “It's important for people to be prepared for such events even though they are at very low-repeat intervals,” he said.

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft last September signed an executive order creating an Ohio Seismic Hazards Advisory Board. The panel of experts and public officials is to recommend what steps the government should take to protect against earthquakes.

        Insurance companies divide the state into two regions for earthquake coverage. The area made up by the eastern Ohio counties of Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Mahoning, Monroe, Noble, Trumbull and Tuscarawas are considered slightly lower risk than the rest of the state.

        An Ohio homeowner with a $100,000 frame house can get earthquake insurance for about $30 a year. Those with brick homes, which are not as flexible in a quake, pay about $50.

        Besides knocking down buildings, an earthquake could snap electric-transmission and natural gas lines. It could lower water tables, depriving communities of their water supply.

        Kim Wissman, deputy director of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's utilities department, said the risk of earthquakes is something the agency considers when deciding whether to approve the locations of power plants and transmission lines.

        Ohio's two nuclear power plants are not free from the risk of quakes. The Bowling Green and Maumee faults run about 50 miles west of the Davis-Besse plant in Port Clinton, and the Middleburg fault is about 50 miles west of the Perry plant near Cleveland.

        Mr. Hansen said exhaustive geological research was done before the plants were built.

        All U.S. nuclear plants are designed to withstand earthquakes. Both the Davis-Besse and Perry plants are equipped with “snubbers,” large shock absorbers designed to cushion sensitive equipment from vibration.

        Todd Schneider, spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp., said the Perry plant would probably be the safest place to be if there were an earthquake in the area.

        “It's a fortress,” he said.

        Ohio's highway bridges meet the earthquake standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

        Brad Fagrell, administrator of the office of structural engineering for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said a highway bridge in Ohio has never been damaged by an earthquake.

        However, Mr. Hansen said other structures are vulnerable.

        “Many older buildings would not be prepared for a moderate-to-major earthquake, particularly old brick buildings,” he said. “A lot of the mortar is weak.”

        But Mr. Hansen said it is hard to convince officials that the risk of an earthquake is worth the expense of strengthening their buildings.

Ohio likes to plan for disasters - after one strikes

        Ohio earthquakes appear to be associated with ancient zones of weakness in the Earth's crust that formed during continental collision and mountain-building events about a billion years ago.

        These zones are characterized by deeply buried faults, some of which serve as the sites for the release of strain due to the movement of tectonic plates that make up the Earth's crust.

        A magnitude 4.0 quake can cause slight to moderate damage; one at 5.0 can cause moderate to considerable damage. A 6.0 quake releases 27,000 times more energy than one measuring 3.0.

        The Ohio Geological Survey has recorded five earthquakes in Ohio that had a magnitude 4.5 or more:

        • 5.5 on March 9, 1937, in Anna, Shelby County.

        • 5.0 on March 2, 1937, in Anna, Shelby County.

        • 5.0 on Jan. 31, 1986, in Painesville, Lake County.

        • 4.8 on Sept. 19, 1884, in Lima, Allen County.

        • 4.6 on July 12, 1986, in St. Marys, Auglaize County.

        The Ohio Seismic Network is designed to precisely identify the earthquake zones of highest risk and to supply information to the public quickly after a quake.

        Monitoring stations with seismometers are located in the following counties:

        • Allen

        • Ashtabula

        • Athens

        • Clark

        • Cuyahoga

        • Delaware

        • Franklin

        • Fairfield

        • Hamilton

        • Lake (2)

        • Lucas

        • Mercer

        • Scioto

        • Wayne

        • Wood


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