This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Weather shows East Coast’s vulnerabilities

  • “If there’s no earthquake to serve as a reminder of the potential for seismic activity, it’s very easy for people to get complacent. This event was a good reminder that it can happen.”

    André Filiatrault
    MCEER Director; Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
By Ellen Goldbaum
Published: Aug. 26, 2011

Talk about a one-two punch: After experiencing a magnitude 5.8 earthquake last Tuesday, residents of the eastern U.S. discovered they were in the eye of Hurricane Irene, which as of Friday threatened to hit areas close to Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, depending on the storm's direction.

These events serve as important reminders about the vulnerability of structures in these areas to the full range of extreme events, from earthquakes to hurricanes and terrorist attacks, say earthquake engineers at the University at Buffalo’s MCEER (Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research).

“To protect and improve the nation’s aging infrastructure, MCEER researchers have focused on applying earthquake engineering techniques to the full range of extreme events,” says André Filiatrault, director of UB’s MCEER and professor in the UB Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “The earthquake earlier this week and the new potential for the most powerful hurricane in 20 years to hit the eastern U.S. are unsettling reminders of just how vulnerable our communities are,” he says.

While Filiatrault characterizes Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 earthquake as “moderate,” he adds,“it can have a positive consequence. If there’s no earthquake to serve as a reminder of the potential for seismic activity, it’s very easy for people to get complacent,” he says. “This event was a good reminder that it can happen.

“On the other hand, we have to be careful that people don’t think that this moderate quake is about the worst that can happen here,” Filiatrault says. “It’s not. It is entirely possible that the eastern U.S. could experience a magnitude 7 or greater.”

He notes that the two largest recorded earthquakes in the eastern half of the U.S. are the series of quakes along the New Madrid Fault in Tennessee and southern Illinois area ranging from magnitude 7 to 8 that occurred from 1811-12 and the magnitude 7.3 Charleston, S.C., quake that occurred in 1888.

In November 2009, Filiatrault and colleagues at MCEER and UB participated in a Vigilant Guard emergency preparedness exercise organized by the New York National Guard and state, regional and local officials, involving more than 1,300 National Guard troops and hundreds of emergency response professionals. The scenario: A magnitude 5.9 earthquake had struck Western New York, an event that was chosen because it is entirely feasible for the region, based on a joint study conducted by MCEER with the New York State Emergency Management Office.

“Definitely, MCEER has always promoted the need for populations in areas, such as New York State, to be more involved in earthquake preparedness efforts and for the adoption of more stringent seismic provisions, especially where buildings are being transformed, say from industrial to residential use,” Filiatrault says.

In particular, unreinforced masonry buildings are the weakest types of buildings and many would be subjected to severe damage if even a moderate earthquake were to hit New York City or Boston, says Filiatrault. Hurricanes, with their powerful winds, put additional loads on these structures already weakened by age, he adds.

“But bringing these old brick buildings up to code would cost more money, and if there’s no earthquake to remind you that this can happen such regulations are unlikely to be adopted,” he says.

UB faculty and staff have conducted reconnaissance efforts in regions hard hit by hurricanes, such as Mississippi and New Orleans, and earthquakes, including in Haiti, Chile and, most recently, Japan. They work with international organizations to improve the resilience of communities against earthquakes and other hazards. Disaster mitigation, response to extreme events and multi-hazard engineering are research strengths of the university identified in the UB 2020 strategic plan.