200-Year Disasters: Are you at risk?

By David Shenk


Our hearts go out to the Haitian people, and of course we all must help. Here's a link to donate to CARE, one very reliable aid group. (There are many others; check up on charities' reputations at Charity Navigator.)

This tragedy should also be a giant reminder that, when it comes to natural disasters, past is prologue. This shocking map shows how many regions in the U.S. have experienced a major earthquake since 1750. This list shows the major known world earthquakes over the past 1,000 years.

Which begs these questions: Is your city/region at risk? Are your architectural codes and emergency response agencies reasonably prepared for a once-in-200-years disaster? And finally, are you at least a little bit personally prepared?

An excerpt from a series on disaster preparedness I wrote for Slate in 2006: 

Four-fifths of the world's major earthquakes occur on the volatile tectonic belt that includes California, Japan, coastal China, Indonesia, and Mexico...[but] the real surprise about earthquakes is how exposed-but-oblivious the rest of us are. Everyone knows about the Great San Francisco Quake of 1906. But how many know that in 1811 and 1812, Missouri and Tennessee experienced three grand earthquakes larger than any ever recorded in California? In addition, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and South Carolina have all recorded quakes greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale....Perhaps the most vulnerable place in the nation right now is New York City, which turns out to be the third-most seismically active region east of the Mississippi. Geologists estimate a 20 percent to 40 percent chance of a significant earthquake in the next 50 years in New York, and they make a special point to say that a major quake is also a real possibility. New Yorkers don't worry about earthquakes, but we should--particularly those of us who own property here. What has experts especially concerned is the city's alarmingly high ratio of likelihood-to-preparedness. The vast majority of buildings in New York, including my own brownstone and thousands just like it in my Brooklyn neighborhood, are not built to withstand significant quakes. Boston, by contrast, which faces roughly the same risk, is in much better structural shape. (New York does require earthquake-resistant design in all new buildings.)


• My Slate piece on Earthquake Preparedness

• A $23 Quake Alarm that could save your life

Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey

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