Earthquakes in California could cost over $200 billion dollars

earthquake haz nxt 50 yrs USGS 2014

Preface. The figures below don’t do justice to the harm an earthquake would do.  There is $1.9 trillion dollars of property at risk from earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a catastrophic earthquake on the Hayward Fault would almost certainly have ripple effects throughout California, the U.S. and the world, since this area has one of the highest concentrations of people, wealth, and innovation in the U.S. (Grossi).

There are two government documents below, first excerpts from the National Research Council 2011 National Earthquake Resilience: Research, Implementation, and Outreach and second a House of representative hearing called “Are we prepared?  Assessing earthquake risk reduction in the U.S.” also from 2011.

These are just a few of the earthquake faults and their estimated costs in California:

Earthquake (Cost / Where):

  • $  69 billion / Southern California Puente Hills fault
  • $  54 billion / Northern California San Andreas Fault
  • $ 213 billion / Southern California San Andreas Fault (Ii 2016, USGS 2008)
  • $  49 billion / Southern California Newport-Inglewood fault
  • $ 190-235 billion / Northern California Hayward Fault (Lesle 2014, Grossi 2013)
  • $  30 billion / Southern California Palos Verdes fault
  • $  29 billion / Southern California Whittier fault
  • $  24 billion / Southern California Verdugo fault

A more detailed estimation (NRC 2011):

TABLE 3.2 HAZUS-MH Annualized Earthquake Loss (AEL) and Annualized Earthquake Loss Ratios (AELR) for 43 High-Risk (AEL greater than $10 million) Metropolitan Areas Table

Possible cascading effects of a large earthquake would be:

  • Destruction of the delta levee system, resulting in $40 billion losses and no drinking water for 23 million people
  • Crashing the U.S. financial system, perhaps also the global financial system
  • Los Angeles is the #1 port in the USA and Oakland #7 in the value of import and exported goods
  • Food security: California supplies a third of food in the United States, and exports a great deal of food as well
  • Bankruptcy of most insurance and re-insurance companies, delaying and preventing recovery
  • Earthquakes sometimes result in compound disasters, in which the major event triggers a secondary event, natural or from the failure of a man-made system. In urban areas, fires may originate in gas lines and spread to storage facilities for petroleum products, gases, and chemicals. These fires often are a much more destructive agent than the tremors themselves because water mains and fire-fighting equipment are rendered useless. More than 80 percent of the total damage in the 1906 San Francisco quake was due to fire (OTA).

California Bay Area Hayward or San Andreas earthquake

  • According to reports by the Association of Bay Area Governments, more than 100,000 dwellings would be uninhabitable and as many as 400,000 could sustain some damage. In a region where rents and home prices are at a premium and vacancies are extremely low, damage to one third of the housing stock in the counties closest to the fault rupture (combined with the business disruption and the inability to travel around the region) would create a social and financial disaster.
  • The potential for massive disruption is a function of the physical conditions in the region. The building stock and the infrastructure are old. The geography of the region has concentrated urban development between the hills and the bay, forcing limited transit corridors with little redundancy and creating significant distances between the urban core immediately surrounding the bay and outlying communities.

On July 17, 2014, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced updated U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps, with the latest scientific views on where, how often, and how hard future earthquakes will be.  Some of the details have changed since the maps were last released in 2008 (National Seismic Hazard Project.)

Lack of Insurance in the San Francisco Bay Area

Over half of the loss after Hurricane Katrina (53%) was covered by insurance.  But only 6% to 10% of the total residential losses and 15% to 20% of the commercial losses of a major Hayward Fault earthquake are expected to be reimbursed by insurance. And those lucky enough to have earthquake insurance will not be completely reimbursed, overall, insurance payments will cover between 10% and 15% of the total loss—somewhere between $11 and $26 billion (Grossi).

San Andreas fault in Southern California (Zablit 2016)

the Cajon Pass is a narrow mountain pass where the mighty San Andreas Fault intersects with key lifelines, including freeways, railway lines, gas and petroleum pipelines as well as electric lines.

A major would cut most lifelines in and out of southern California, preventing critical aid from reaching some 20 million people and hampering recovery efforts, experts say.

The quake would also rupture flammable pipelines, triggering explosions and fires that could burn out of control.

Anything that comes into southern California has to cross the San Andreas Fault to get there—gas, electricity, water, freeways, railways.

“Most of the water has to cross the fault but when the earthquake happens, all of the aqueducts will be broken at the same time. To prepare Los Angeles could clean up contaminated aquifers below this area, but that would entail a massive cost.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


NRC. 2011. National Earthquake Resilience: Research, Implementation, and Outreach. National Research Council

Earthquakes threaten much of the United States—damaging earthquakes struck Alaska in 1964 and 2002, California in 1857 and 1906, and the central Mississippi River Valley in 1811 and 1812. Moderate earthquakes causing substantial damage have repeatedly struck most of the western states as well as several mid-western and eastern states, e.g., South Carolina in 1886 and Massachusetts in 1755. The recent, disastrous, magnitude-9 earthquake that struck northern Japan demonstrates the threat that earthquakes pose, and the tragic impacts are especially striking because Japan is an acknowledged leader in implementing earthquake resilient measures. Moreover, the cascading nature of impacts—the earthquake causing a tsunami, cutting electrical power supplies, and stopping the pumps needed to cool nuclear reactors—demonstrates the potential complexity of an earthquake disaster. Such compound disasters can strike any earthquake-prone populated area.


The United States will certainly be subject to damaging earthquakes in the future, and some of those earthquakes will occur in highly populated and vulnerable areas. Just as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated for hurricane events, coping with moderate earthquakes is not a reliable indicator of preparedness for a major earthquake in a populated area.

The United States has not experienced a great earthquake since 1964, when Alaska was struck by a magnitude-9.2 event, and the damage in Alaska was relatively light because of the sparse population. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the most recent truly devastating U.S. shock, because recent destructive earthquakes have been only moderate to strong in size. Consequently, a sense has developed that the country can cope effectively with the earthquake threat and is, in fact, “resilient.” However, coping with moderate events may not be a true indicator of preparedness for a great one. One means to understand the potential effects from major earthquakes is to use scenarios, where communities simulate the effects and responses to a specified earthquake.

Analysis of the 2008 ShakeOut scenario in California (Jones et al., 2008), which involved more than 5,000 emergency responders and the participation of more than 5.5 million citizens, indicated that the magnitude-7.8 scenario earthquake would have resulted in an estimated 1,800 fatalities, $113 billion in damages to buildings and lifelines, and nearly $70 billion in business interruption. Such an earthquake would clearly have a major effect on the nation as a whole,


When a strong earthquake hits an urban area, structures collapse, people are injured or killed, infrastructure is disrupted, and business interruption begins. The immediate impacts caused by an earthquake can be devastating to a community, challenging it to launch rescue efforts, restore essential services, and initiate the process of recovery. The ability of a community to recover from such a disaster reflects its resilience,

The three most recent earthquake disasters in the United States all occurred in California—in 1994 near Los Angeles at Northridge, in 1989 near San Francisco centered on Loma Prieta, and in 1971 near Los Angeles at San Fernando. In each earthquake, large buildings and major highways were heavily damaged or collapsed and the economic activity in the afflicted area was severely disrupted. Remarkably, despite the severity of damage, deaths numbered fewer than a hundred for each event. Moreover, in a matter of days or weeks, these communities had restored many essential services or worked around major problems, completed rescue efforts, and economic activity—although impaired—had begun to recover. It could be argued that these communities were, in fact, quite resilient. But it should be emphasized that each of these earthquakes was only moderate to strong in size, less than magnitude-7, and that the impacted areas were limited in size. How well would these communities cope with a magnitude-8 earthquake?

Would an earthquake on the scale of the 1906 event in northern California or the 1857 event in southern California lead to a similar catastrophe? It is likely that an earthquake on the scale of these events in California would indeed lead to a catastrophe similar to hurricane Katrina, but of a significantly different nature. Flooding, of course, would not be the main hazard, but substantial casualties, collapse of structures, fires, and economic disruption could be of great consequence. Similarly, what would happen if there were to be a repeat of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, in view of the vulnerability of the many bridges and chemical facilities in the region and the substantial barge traffic on the Mississippi River? Or, consider the impact if an earthquake like the 1886 Charleston tremor struck in other areas in the central or eastern United States, where earthquake-prone, unreinforced masonry structures abound and earthquake preparedness is not a prime concern?


Earthquakes proceed as cascades, in which the primary effects of faulting and ground shaking induce secondary effects such as landslides, liquefaction, and tsunami, which in turn set off destructive processes within the built environment such as fires and dam failures

The socioeconomic effects of large earthquakes can reverberate for decades.

Moreover, the scenario is essentially a compound event like Hurricane Katrina, with the projected urban fires caused by gas main breaks and other types of induced accidents projected to cause $40 billion of the property damage and more than $22 billion of the business interruption. Devastating fires occurred in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco, 1923 Tokyo, and 1995 Kobe earthquakes. Loss estimates have been published for a range of earthquake scenarios based on historic events—e.g., the 1906 San Francisco earthquake the 1811/1812 New Madrid earthquakes and the magnitude-9 Cascadia subduction earthquake of 1700 — or inferred from geologic data that show the magnitudes and locations of prehistoric fault ruptures (e.g., the Puente Hills blind thrust that runs beneath central Los Angeles). In all cases, the results from such estimates are staggering, with economic losses that run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Hazard insurance issues. NEHRP-sponsored social research has documented many difficulties in developing and maintaining an actuarially sound insurance program for earthquakes and floods—those who are most likely to purchase earthquake and flood insurance are, in fact, those who are most likely to file claims. This problem makes it virtually impossible to sustain an insurance market in the private sector for these hazards. Economists and psychologists have documented in laboratory studies a number of logical deficiencies in the way people process information related to risks as it relates to insurance decision-making. Market failure in earthquake and flood insurance remains an important social science research and public policy issue.

Post-disaster responses by the public and private sectors. Research before and since the establishment of NEHRP in 1977 has contradicted misconceptions that during disasters, panic will be widespread, that large percentages of those who are expected to respond will simply abandon disaster relief roles, that local institutions will break down, that crime and other forms of anti-social behavior will be rampant, and that the mental impairment of victims and first responders will be a major problem.

An analysis of the impacts of a magnitude-7.7 earthquake on all three New Madrid faults was performed by the Mid-America Earthquake Center under the FEMA New Madrid Catastrophic Planning Initiative (Elnashai et al., 2009). Results indicated that this event would have widespread, catastrophic consequences (Figure 2.1), including:

  • Nearly 715,000 buildings damaged in eight states.
  • Substantial damage to critical infrastructure (essential facilities, transportation, and utility lifelines) in 140 counties: 2.6 million households without electric power; 425,000 breaks and leaks to both local and interstate pipelines; and 3,500 damaged bridges, with 15 major bridges unusable.
  • 86,000 casualties for a 2:00 am scenario, with 3,500 fatalities.
  • 7.2 million people displaced, with 2 million seeking temporary shelter. • 130 hospitals damaged.
  • $300 billion in direct economic losses, including buildings, transportation, and utility lifelines, but excluding business interruption costs.

Moreover, infrastructure damage would have a major impact on interstate transport crossing the Central United States.

The report, When the Big One Strikes Again (Kircher et al., 2006), estimated that many of Northern California’s nearly 10 million residents would be affected. It would cost $90-$120 billion to repair or replace the more than 90,000 damaged buildings and their contents, and as many as 10,000 commercial buildings would sustain major structural damage. Between 160,000 and 250,000 households would be displaced from damaged residences. Depending upon whether the earthquake occurs during the day or night, building collapses would cause 800 to 3,400 deaths, and a conflagration similar in scale to the 1906 fire is possible and could cause an immense loss. Damage to utilities and transportation systems would increase losses by an additional 5% to 15%, and economic disruption from prolonged lifeline outages and loss of functional workspace would cost several times this amount. Considering all loss components, the total price tag for a repeat of the 1906 earthquake is likely to exceed $150 billion. In such a scenario, the city of San Francisco might not be able to recover from the cascading consequences and might lose its central place in the region.

Both the Bay Area and southern California scenarios impact some of the largest population centers in the United States, with damage estimates ranging between $100 and $200 billion and with thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries. Similarly, scenario indications that earthquake-induced levee failures in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta would disrupt drinking water supplies to more than 22 million Californians as well as irrigation water to delta and state agricultural lands.

One Cascadia earthquake scenario estimates more than $11 billion in building damages for the mid- and southern Willamette Valley (Burns

In the eastern United States, an earthquake loss estimation for the metropolitan New York–New Jersey–Connecticut area showed that even a moderate earthquake would significantly impact the region’s large population (18.5 million) and predominately unreinforced masonry building stock (Tantala et al., 2003). South Carolina recently completed a comprehensive risk assessment for the repeat of the 1886 magnitude-7.3 Charleston earthquake, producing an estimate of $20 billion in direct losses (URS et al., 2001).

As seen in Table 3.2, 43 metropolitan areas—led by Los Angeles and San Francisco—account for the majority (82%) of the earthquake risk in the United States. Outside of California, at risk communities including Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, Salt Lake City, UT, and Memphis, TN, show that earthquakes are not just a California problem.

Hayward, CA, earthquake indicate that only 6 to 10% of total residential losses and 15 to 20% of commercial losses would be covered by insurance following a repeat of the magnitude-6.8 to 7.0 earthquake. In contrast, approximately 53% of the economic losses to homes and businesses following hurricane Katrina were covered by insurance, including payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program

Confidentiality Issues

Many stakeholders, especially those in areas of critical infrastructure, are reluctant or, because of provisions in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, are unable to release inventory information beyond their organizations. These restrictions impact the ability of communities to recognize and plan for service disruptions during disasters.

Research over decades has contradicted misconceptions that during a disaster panic will be widespread, those expected to respond will abandon their roles, social institutions will break down, and anti-social behaviors will become rampant.

The poor, minorities, the aged, and the infirm are more vulnerable, and even the middle class and those well off can be rendered indigent as a result of a disaster.

Construction prices are likely to rise following a major earthquake. Although this is often attributed to the fact that there is an increased demand for repair and reconstruction, it also stems from the fact that construction equipment has been damaged, as have inventories of construction materials. Moreover, the production of even more materials may be limited because of damage to their manufacturers. This condition can raise the cost of recovery significantly. It involves an important tradeoff between recovering quickly at a high price and minimizing business interruption losses vs. incurring business interruption losses and waiting until prices settle down in order to reduce recovered costs.

We acknowledge that this is a challenging subject largely because of the complex network characteristics of electricity, gas, water, transportation, and communication lifelines.

A dramatic “wake up call” concerning the vulnerability of electric systems and the resultant regional and national consequences occurred as a result of the August 2003 Northeast Blackout. This blackout affected 5 states, 50 million people, and caused an estimated $4-10 billion in business interruption losses in the central and eastern United States. Moreover, the power outage caused “cascading” failures to water systems, transportation, hospitals, and numerous other critical infrastructures; such infrastructure failure interdependencies are common across many types of disasters. The 2003 Northeast Blackout demonstrated that while initiating events can vary (e.g., a falling tree, an earthquake, or an act of terrorism), the consequences can be similar.

House 112-13. April 7, 2011. Are we prepared? Assessing earthquake risk reduction in the U.S.  House hearing. 82 pages.


The hearing will examine various elements of the Nation’s level of earthquake preparedness and resiliency including the U.S. capability to detect earthquakes and issue notifications and warnings, coordination between federal, state and local stakeholders for earthquake emergency preparation, and research and development measures supported by the federal government designed to improve the scientific understanding of earthquakes. Portions of all 50 states are vulnerable to earthquake hazards, although risks vary across the country and within individual states. Twenty-six urban areas in 14 U.S. states face significant seismic risk. Earthquake hazards are greatest in the western United States, particularly in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Though infrequent, earthquakes are unique among natural hazards in that they strike without warning. Earthquakes proceed as cascades, in which the primary effects of faulting and ground shaking induce secondary effects such as landslides, liquefaction, and tsunami, which in turn set off destructive processes within the built environment; structures collapse, people are injured or killed, infrastructure is disrupted, and business interruption begins. The socioeconomic effects of large earthquakes can reverberate for decades. The recent earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan on March 11, 2011, illustrates that the effects of an earthquake can be catastrophic. The earthquake, recorded as a 9.0 on the Richter scale, is the most powerful quake to hit the country, and it triggered a devastating tsunami that swept over cities and farmland in the northern part of the country. As Japan struggles with rescue efforts, it also faces a nuclear emergency due to damage to the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. As of March 31, the official death toll from the earthquake and resulting tsunami includes more than 11,600, and more than 16,000 people were listed as missing. The final toll is expected to reach nearly 20,000. More than 190,000 people remained housed in temporary shelters; tens of thousands of others evacuated their homes due to the nuclear crisis and related fear.

In Japan, the after effects of the quakes have reduced supplies of water and electricity, hampering their ability to export many manufacturing products and forcing some businesses to slow or stop operation all together. Supply chains for important technology products here in the States have also been interrupted, directly impacting our productivity.

Clearly the consequences of a major earthquake are felt on a global scale. These hazards represent a serious threat to both national security and global commerce. Given our current economic situation, it would be even more painful for the United States to endure a disastrous earthquake, the socioeconomic effects of which would reverberate for decades.


I am testifying on behalf of the 140,000 members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). At ASCE, I am Chairman of the Infrastructure and Research Policy Committee. Additionally, I serve as Chairman, Degenkolb Engineers; and I serve as Chairman of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Advisory Committee. I am registered civil and structural engineer, and have worked for more than 35-years as an advisor on government programs for earthquake hazard mitigation and in related professional activities.

It also must be recognized that resilience is not just about the built environment. It starts with individuals, families, communities, and includes their organizations, businesses, and local governments. In addition to an appropriately constructed built environment, resilience includes plans for post event governance, reconstruction standards that assure better performance in the next event, and a financial roadmap for funding the recovery.

While the nation can promote resilience through improved design codes and mitigation strategies, implementation and response occur at the local level. Making such a shift to updated codes and generating community support for new policies are not possible without solid, unified support from all levels of government.

The federal government needs to set performance standards that can be embedded in the national design codes, be adamant that states adopt contemporary building codes including provisions for rigorous enforcement, provide financial incentives to stimulate mitigation that benefits the nation, and continue to support research that delivers new technologies that minimize the cost of mitigation, response, and recovery. Regions need to identify the vulnerability of their lifeline systems and set programs for their mitigation to the minimum level of need. Localities need to develop mandatory programs that mitigate their built environment as needed to assure recovery.

[In response to a question about how prepared we are on a scale of 1 to 100 for resiliency, preparation, and recovery]:  Are we prepared? No. I would say maybe 10. In areas of very high seismicity in California, Oregon and Washington, there have been building codes in place for 20 years that are going to help people be safe. Other parts of the country that we talk about, those things are not in place., From a scale of safety, I believe that California will maybe 50 or 60. On a scale of resilience to be able to recover quickly and not have a significant impact on the national economy, we are still down in the 10–20 range.

The vast majority of our building stock and utility systems in place today were not designed for earthquake effects let alone given the ability to recover quickly from strong shaking and land movement. Earthquake Engineering is a new and emerging field and only since the mid-1980s has sufficient information been available to assure safe designs. Design procedures that will assure resilience are just now being developed. Strong, community destroying earthquakes are expected to occur throughout the United States. In most regions outside of California, little is being done about it. While modern building codes and design standards are available, they are not routinely implemented on new construction or during major rehabilitation efforts because of the complexity and cost. Many communities do not believe they are vulnerable and if they do accept the vulnerability, find the demands of seismic mitigation unreachable.

The problem of implementation and acceptance does not just lie with the public, but also with the earthquake professionals. Because this is an emerging area of understanding, conservatism is added whenever there is significant uncertainty. Earth Science research has made great strides in identifying areas that will be affected by strong shaking. Unfortunately, each earthquake brings different styles of shaking and building performance. This leaves many structural engineers generally uncertain about what causes buildings to collapse, and unwilling to predict the extent of damage that will occur, let alone whether a building will be usable during repairs or if lifeline systems can be restored quickly enough. Resilience demands transparent performance and significant earthquake science and earthquake engineering research and guideline development is needed to bring that ability to communities.

Comprehensive worldwide monitoring and data gathering related to earthquake intensity and impact. Extensive instrumentation is needed to adequately record the size and characteristics of the energy released and the variation in intensity of strong shaking that affect the built environment. We are lucky if we obtain a handful of records for entire cities but in reality thousands are needed to record the dramatic differences that occur and to understand the damage that results. In addition, the geologic changes that occur due to faulting, landslides, and liquefaction need to be surveyed, recorded, and used to understand the future vulnerability of the built environment to land movement. A network of observation centers is needed to record, catalogue and maintain information related to the impacts on society, and the factors influencing communities’ disaster risk and resilience. At present, earthquake engineering is based more on anecdotal observations of damage that are translated into conservative design procedures without the benefit of accurate data about what actually happened. In my mind, expanded monitoring is the single most important area that will reduce the cost of seismic design and mitigation that will allow us to achieve greater resilience.

An Overarching Framework that defines resilience in terms of Performance Goals Resiliency is all about how a community of individuals and their built environment weather the damage, respond and recover. It is more about improvisation and redundancy than about how any single element or system performs. Buildings and systems are designed one structure at a time for the worst conditions they are expected to experience. This approach worked well when life safety was the goal, and there was no need to consider the overall performance of the built environment. Resiliency, however, demands that performance goals and their interdependencies are set at the community level for the classes of structures and systems communities depend during the recovery process. Facilities providing essential services during post-earthquake response and recovery must function without interruption. Electric power is needed before any other system can be fully restored. Emergency generators can only last a few days without additional deliveries of fuel. Power restoration, however, depends on access for emergency repair crews and their supplies. Community level recovery depends on neighborhoods being restored within a few weeks so the needed workforce is available to restart the local economy. People must be able to shelter in place in their homes, even without utilities, but cannot be expected to stay and work after a few days without basic utility services. To ensure that past and future advances in building, lifelines, urban design, technology, and socioeconomic research result in improved community resilience, a framework for measuring, monitoring and evaluating community resilience is needed. This framework must consider performance at various scales-e.g., building, lifeline, and community-and build on the experience and lessons of past events. Only the Federal government can break the stalemate related to setting performance goals that if left alone will eventually cripple the nation.

Senator David Wu, Oregon. As an Oregonian, I am particularly concerned with the prospect of a similar disaster occurring in the Pacific Northwest. Off the coast of Oregon, Washington and northern California, we have the Cascadia subduction zone, and this fault is currently locked in place, but research over the last 30 years indicates that the same stress now accumulating has been released as a large earthquake once about every 300 years dating back to the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. The last Cascadia earthquake occurred 309 or 310 years ago. It was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the same destructive magnitude as the one that stuck Japan. All indications show that we Oregonians can expect another quake any time. It is a matter of when, not a matter of if.

When the next earthquake occurs on our fault, there will be prolonged shaking, perhaps for as long as five minutes, with the potential to collapse buildings, create landslides, and destroy water, power, and other crucial infrastructure and lifelines. Such an earthquake will also likely trigger a devastating tsunami that could overwhelm the Oregon coast in less than 15 minutes, resulting in potentially thousands of fatalities and billions of dollars in damage. Unfortunately, this type of disaster scenario is not limited to the Western United States. In fact, more than 75 million Americans across 39 states face significant risk from earthquakes.

JACK HAYES, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL EARTHQUAKE HAZARDS REDUCTION PROGRAM, NIST.  Since the beginning of 2010, we have witnessed horrific losses of life in Haiti (over 230,000) and Japan (toll still unknown but numbering in the tens of thousands) due to the combined earthquake and tsunami impacts, and lesser, but nevertheless significant, losses of life in Chile and New Zealand. The toll in terms of human life is overwhelming, and we all offer our heartfelt sympathy to those nations and their citizens.

Haiti and Chile earthquakes provided a stark contrast in the effectiveness of modern building codes and sound construction practices. In Haiti, where such standards were minimal or non-existent, many thousands were killed in the collapses of homes and other buildings. In Chile, with much more modern building codes and engineering practices, the loss of life, while still tragic, was far smaller, about 500, despite the fact that the Chile earthquake had a significantly higher magnitude of 8.8 (M8.8) than the Haiti earthquake (M7.0). The fault rupture that caused the Chile earthquake released approximately 500 times the energy released in the Haiti earthquake. The Chilean building code provisions had been based in large part on U.S. model building codes that have been developed by researchers and practitioners who have been associated with and supported by NEHRP. Scientists and engineers have not yet had enough time since the 2011 earthquakes in New Zealand (M6.3) and Japan (M9.0) to draw detailed conclusions. We do know that Japan and New Zealand are international leaders in seismology and earthquake engineering—we in the U.S. partner with our counterparts in both countries, because we have much to learn from one another. Despite their technical prowess, leaders in both countries have been taken aback by the amount of damage that has occurred. One lesson we take from this before we even begin detailed studies is that we still have much to learn about the earthquake hazards we face and the engineering measures needed to minimize the risks from those hazards. Assuming that we already know everything we need to know is the surest strategy for catastrophe. The other broad lesson that has already become clear from both of these events is that local, and indeed national, resilience —to recover in a timely manner from the occurrence of an earthquake or other hazard event—is vital, going far beyond the essential, but narrowly focused, issue of ensuring life safety in buildings and other locations when an earthquake occurs. In Christchurch, NZ, the central business district has been largely closed since the February 21 earthquake, severely impacting the local economy. Some reports indicate as many as 50,000 people are out of work as a result of this closure. In Japan, the impact of the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami have been far worse on the national economy, with energy, agriculture, and commercial disruptions of monumental proportions. Some estimates already put the economic losses over $300 billion, and economic disruption is certain to continue for years and extend far beyond Japan’s shores.

The 2010 and 2011 events followed decades or even centuries of quiescence on the faults where they struck and are sobering reminders of the unexpected tragedies that can occur. The USGS has recently issued updated assessments of earthquake hazards in the U.S. that provide appropriate perspectives for us. For example, in 2008, the USGS, the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), and the California Geological Survey (CGS), with support from the California Earthquake Authority (CEA), jointly forecast a greater than 99% certainty of California’s experiencing a M6.7 or greater earthquake within the next 30 years.

The recent New Zealand earthquake, at M6.3, is slightly less severe than that which is postulated for California. The recent Chile and Japan earthquakes, at M8.8–M9.0, occurred in tectonic plate collision zones where one plate overrides another; that characteristic is closely comparable to those which generated 1964 Alaska earthquake and more ancient earthquakes off the coasts of Oregon and Washington, in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Seismologists thus believe that what we have recently observed in Chile and Japan should serve as clear indication to us for what may likely occur again someday off the Alaska, Oregon, and Washington coasts.

While concern for future earthquake activity is always great along our West Coast, the National Research Council has noted in its publications that 39 states in the U.S. have some degree of earthquake risk, with 18 of those having high or very high seismicity. In 2011 and 2012, earthquake practitioners and state and local leaders in Memphis, St. Louis, and other Midwestern locales will participate in events that will commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the New Madrid sequence of earthquakes, which included at least four earthquakes with magnitudes estimated at 7.0 or greater.

If a southern California earthquake severely damaged the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as happened to the port of Kobe, Japan, in 1995, there would be national economic implications. Similarly, if a major earthquake occurred in the Central U.S., one or more Mississippi River transcontinental rail or highway crossings in the Saint Louis to Memphis region, as well as oil and natural gas transmission lines could be severely disrupted.

In 2008, the USGS, California Geological Survey, and Southern California Earthquake Center produced a plausible scenario of a rupture of the southern end of the San Andreas fault that could result in about 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries, and economic losses exceeding $200 billion in the greater Los Angeles area. This scenario formed the basis for the 2008 Great Southern California Shakeout earthquake preparedness and response exercise.


Response & Recovery. A major event involving multiple disciplines is complex and difficult to manage. While firefighters, law enforcement officials, and emergency medical personnel often constitute the traditional first responders, emergency managers provide the all important coordination function. This coordination far exceeds the initial response as emergency managers also maintain responsibility for the transition from the lights and sirens of response into the complex and often long-term efforts of recovery. Once an event occurs, the response is a three-tiered process of escalation where the level of support is directly related to the need of the impacted jurisdiction. The initial response is at the local level where first responders and local emergency managers provide assistance. Should the incident exceed the capacity of those local responders, the state may offer assistance in myriad ways including personnel, response resources, financial support, and mutual aid. On rare occasions, an event will even overwhelm the state’s ability to mount an effective response. This is usually the only time in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is called upon to offer assistance. FEMA assistance is triggered by a direct request from the Governor to the President. Should the President deem the event worthy of federal assets, a Presidential Disaster Declaration is declared and FEMA can provide assistance such as assets from the Department of Defense, financial aid, and expertise. Disaster assistance from FEMA traditionally comes in one of three forms. The first is the Public Assistance (PA) Program which provides supplemental financial assistance to state and local governments as well as certain private non-profit organizations for response and recovery activities required as a result of a disaster. The PA Program provides assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and permanent restoration of infrastructure. Federal share of these expenses are typically not less than 75 percent of eligible costs. The PA Program encourages protection from future damages by providing assistance for Hazard Mitigation


Oregon’s Department of Transportation published in 2009 the Seismic Vulnerability of Oregon State Highway Bridges: Mitigation Strategies to Reduce Major Mobility Risks. This study incorporates FEMA HAZUS risk assessment modeling funded by NEHRP as well as NEHRP soil conditions data to determine peak ground acceleration (PGA). Their findings indicate that 38% of state-owned bridges in western Oregon would fail or be too heavily damaged to be serviceable after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and that repair or replacement would take 3–5 years essentially cutting the Oregon coastal communities off from the rest of the state.

Chairman QUAYLE. Mr. Poland, in your testimony you compared the different results of the earthquakes that occurred in Haiti and Japan, and even what happened in the Northridge quake, and the quake that occurred in San Francisco. You mentioned that it would be cost-prohibitive to retrofit buildings across the United States. What is your suggestion to minimize the repercussions of an earthquake? Do you mostly look at where different communities lie along faults? For example, a city is close to the San Andreas fault, you obviously take different things into account than cities in middle America located away from the New Madrid fault line.

Mr. POLAND. The biggest problem we have is that the built environment that we have right now in the country has not been designed for earthquake effects, both in terms of public safety and in terms of being able to recover and resiliency. And so the biggest problem we have is, what do we do with 85 or 90 percent of our buildings and systems that are not adequate for the kind of performance that we want. When I spoke about it being cost-prohibitive, I was speaking about retrofitting those buildings and those systems so that they can perform properly, and that is what costs so much money.

Mr. WU. My second question is that we do have a number of nuclear reactors that are sitting on active seismic zones, and I believe one of them is on the West Coast. Can you all comment on what can be done to build resiliency and recovery into these nuclear facilities? You know, what we found in Japan is that it wasn’t the earthquake, it was the tsunami and the loss of electricity and it affected both the reactor itself and the fuel that was stored in pools on top of the reactor facility. Can you all comment on how we can do a better job with our own nuclear facilities?

Dr. HAYES.  NEHRP itself does not address the nuclear facilities in the United States. That is the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

Mr. POLAND. I would just like to add that the design process that has been done for nuclear power plants since their inception has been extraordinarily rigorous and much more detailed and much more carefully done than for any other kind of construction by many orders of magnitude. Our facilities, our nuclear facilities from a standpoint of strong shaking are the safest buildings that we have in the Nation. The problem in Japan, as you mentioned, had to do with the tsunami, and it wasn’t that they didn’t think they were going to have a tsunami. They had a wall. The wall wasn’t tall enough. The backup systems didn’t work as well as they thought that they would.

Mr. SARBANES. Okay. Humans are notoriously shortsighted about everything, and even with the earthquake activity of recent days, we will get back to being shortsighted even on this question, and I wonder if you could speak to—I mean, I would imagine if you went to any budget hearing at a local level, at a city, municipality level or at the state level if earthquake preparation and resiliency was even on the budget document, it would be on the last page on the last line because there are so many other things obviously that are pulling on our resources and our attention. So it makes me wonder how much—and I think you have spoken to this a little bit, but the opportunity to piggyback the kinds of things you want to see done onto other kinds of initiatives that are out there that have greater priority in the minds of planners and budgeters and all the rest of it so that you can kind of come along with a little bit, of leverage and not so much add a cost, say, well, as long as you are doing X, Y and Z, why not add this into the mix, and that can go to codes and building standards and so forth. But it also could go particularly well with community resiliency planning, and I wonder if you could speak to that and maybe throw in whether sort of green building codes and sustainable building codes are ones where there can be some added elements with respect to resiliency and so

Mr. MULLEN. I will tell you that on the West Coast, there are significant discussions taking place in local communities about earthquakes and tsunami threats and measures that should be taken. One of the things we haven’t really talked about is the importance of the general public understanding not only the risk they face but the measures they can take to protect themselves. I am very enthusiastic about getting a warning about something that might be coming like the tsunami warning we got a few weeks ago really helped us but the type of events, the no- notice events that we would deal with in the central Puget Sound or in Oregon or on the coast, they are not going to get a lot of warning for an earthquake. One of the things that we need to do is make sure people are prepared to take the protective steps that they need immediately. They need to be able to drop cover and hold. They need to know that they have got—that they need to have some resources for themselves. And on the coast, we have been working hard with the communities about their evacuation programs, knowing what it means to move quickly. The ground motion in an earthquake that is right off our coast is your signal. We also have an elaborate system of warning systems that we can activate to tell people to move to high ground. The difficulty we have, the challenge that communities have as they prepare with us and they have worked with us is there is not a vertical evacuation site that is necessarily readily available to every community, and so we have been trying to plan for the type of vertical evacuation structure that would be necessary on the coast in the Port of Los Angeles or Long Beach or Ilwaco where those folks can get to a place of safety which may not be the warmest, driest place but it will at least be above any kind of potential wave. That is an important step. There is no such structure right now but the communities are planning with it. I think the key to this whole thing that you are getting at in terms of where people are, and I would not hazard a guess about the scale because I would just be making something up. I will tell you if you educate people about the risks that they face and you level with people about what they can do to protect themselves and their families, whether it is the average citizen, someone running a business or the emergency management community or the local elected officials, you begin to generate the kind of interest that will get people looking at this as another issue that they have to deal with and move it up on that committee agenda. The national-level exercise I spoke of in my testimony is an attempt in the Midwest, in eight Midwestern states to begin to educate people at the same time that we are determining whether our doctrines and plans are going to work for us or not. That will be an extremely challenging exercise. We expect failure to occur because we want to find out what our condition is. So we are very eager to find out where we are weak, where we have got strengths and make sure we capitalize on the strengths and shore up the weaknesses.


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B. Rowshandel, et. al. 2003. Estimation of Future Earthquake Losses in California.  California Geological Survey.

Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), Scenario for a Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake on the Hayward Fault (Oakland, Calif.: EERI, 1996).

Grossi, P., et al. 2013. 1868 Hayward Earthquake: 145-year retrospective. Risk Management Solutions.

Ii, Rong-gong Lin. May 5, 2016. San Andreas Fault ‘locked, loaded and ready to roll’ with big quake, expert says. Los Angeles Times.

Lesle, T. 2014. Doomsday 4: A Massive Quake Could Be Only the Beginning of the Bay Area’s Woes. Cal Alumni Association, UC Berkeley.

NRC. 2011. National Earthquake Resilience: Research, Implementation, and Outreach. National Research Council

OTA (Office of Technology Assessment). 1990. Physical Vulnerability of Electric System to Natural Disasters and Sabotage. OTA-E-453. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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4 Responses to Earthquakes in California could cost over $200 billion dollars

  1. Laurel says:

    Like the Cascadia scenario, none of the big cities in California recognize in their emergency plans that often the only transport that can deliver food, water, medications, fuel to the required sites are helicopters, since too many roads will be blocked by damage or fires. They would not only need more helicopters than are available, but more helicopter pilots than are available. Much of this equipment and personnel is overseas.

    • energyskeptic says:

      And where will the helicopters get the fuel from? if too far away, that limits their range to deliver food (I expect much will come in on ships along the West coast, though distribution inland is problematic). In 1984, a regional planning agency spoke to us at American President Lines about the aftermath of a major earthquake. All of our major freeways are on landfill and would be unavailable, the nearest airport would be Travis air force base, and it would take over 20 years to recover. That was 30 years ago. Now that we’ve been on a conventional oil production plateau since 2005, so we are close to the down slope of Hubbert’s curve, which will make recovery in the future after an earthquake even harder. I just read an excellent book on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, by Bryan Ward-Perkins “The fall of Rome and the end of civilization”. After the Roman Empire fell, for centuries new homes were built out of mud and thatch, instead of the former brick, mortar, and tiled roofs (even primitive animal shelters on remote farms had tile roofs). This makes it hard to know how many people died, because mud and thatch don’t leave much evidence. Clearly the level of recovery from disasters in the future will grow continually less…

      • hugh owens says:

        Sceptic, your point is well presented in that transportation energy is oil and it is not just diminishing supplies going forward as we sled down the seneca cliff but where it is stored and how to pump without reliable electrical energy which would likely be in short supply. Helicopters are no answer to a mass casualty event. They carry very little and require 1.5 hrs of maintenance for 1 hour in the air, at least they did when I was attached to a Huey wing in the last big war that we lost. Self driving trucks and Teslas will be no help either. Horses and mules would be useful. Where do you buy Hay and oats in the Bay Area, Alice? Might be time for you to start looking for safer pastures. I would miss your blog.

        • energyskeptic says:

          My husband is a techno-optimist and I love him too much to leave for a more sustainable area. And who knows how this will play? I think that living in a port city could be an advantage at first, since it takes hundreds of time less energy to move goods over water than land, plus I’m near the central valley where 1/3 of America’s food is grown. But when the thieving and violence start, Oakland will be one of the worst places to be. Though there are a lot of very wealthy people on our street – in other countries when this happened gated communities were built, perhaps they’ll put up walls with guards. But that would require a slow crash, and I suspect this will be a fast one in 20 years or less. I hope you’re in a better place than I am!