Archives: Can California survive a 9.0-Magnitude earthquake?

Originally published in April 2011
By Simon Nguyen

Predicting and preparing for a major earthquake are equally tricky. When famed seismologist Jim Berkland predicted a massive earthquake could hit California between March 19 and 26 of this year, it raised enough red flags that officials in quake-prone areas were making plans to prepare for such an event. Even after Berkland’s doomsday passed without a major seismic event, the level of alertness in California remains high because the possibility of a devastating earthquake is genuine.

California has been struck by many major earthquakes before, with the biggest quake registered at 7.9. Despite boasting strong building codes, structures in the most populous U.S. state do not have a good record of surviving strong earthquakes. The most recent major seismic event in the state, the 1994 Northridge Quake (registered at 6.7), caused massive structural destructions in the Los Angeles area. This was in spite of the fact that building codes at the time were designed specifically to minimize quake damages. If California does get hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the scale of destruction will be immense.

The possibility of a quake-triggered nuclear disaster in California is also of great concern. The state currently has two active nuclear plants, both of which happen to situate in major earthquake-prone zones. Moreover, these plants were not designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8 or higher. Also, the plants’ coastal locations make them highly susceptible to quake-generated tsunamis and flooding.

The poor state of earthquake preparedness in California is another critical issue. While earthquakes occur regularly in the state, the last major quake was 17 years ago. Following that event, earthquake readiness in California was understandably very high. Unfortunately, officials in California have not done a good job of maintaining a high level of public preparedness through information and education. Presently, only 40% of Californians have a family disaster plan and less than 20% of homeowners have purchased earthquake insurance.

A devastating earthquake in California will have enormous impact not only on the state, but on the entire nation. Earthquake-prone Southern California is home to the headquarters of many important corporations and institutions. A major seismic event in the area is likely to disrupt business operations and paralyze key U.S. industries. The economic costs of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in California are likely to surpass those of Katrina many times over.

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