Au Sable Earthquake Points Out Need for Seismic Retrofitting Throughout New York State

UB's MCEER, engineering school developing new earthquake-engineering technologies

Release Date: April 23, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Though the damage was relatively minor, Saturday's earthquake in Au Sable Falls, N.Y., points out the need for upgrading structures throughout New York State so they are better able to withstand future earthquakes, says an earthquake-engineering researcher at the University at Buffalo.

"It's something that most people don't think about until after an earthquake, but the fact is most of the structures in New York State, and throughout the country, were not designed to withstand earthquakes," says Michel Bruneau, deputy director of the Multidisciplinary Center on Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), headquartered at UB.

An expert on seismic evaluation and retrofit of steel bridges, buildings and masonry infrastructure, Bruneau says it's not realistic to expect cities to expend resources for the upgrading of all or most structures, but he says it's important to begin retrofitting critical buildings and lifelines -- such as hospitals, bridges, and water, gas and electric facilities -- to the level of seismic protection they need to withstand an earthquake.

"These facilities deserve priority attention," says Bruneau. "Hospitals obviously need to be operational in order to treat injuries that commonly occur during earthquakes -- you can't set up a makeshift hospital in a parking lot during the cold of January in upstate New York or in New York City where space is limited.

"And imagine the inconvenience and potential danger of going without water and electricity for two months, let alone two hours or two days, as is sometimes the case during snow or ice storms," he adds.

The first step in deciding how much seismic retrofitting or rehabilitation a building needs, according to Bruneau, is to evaluate the building using a model building code, such as the International Building Code, which contains the latest earthquake-resistant design provisions. He says that building-code requirements vary from city to city, and that most cities decide to ignore the seismic-related provisions from the model codes when they enact their own building codes.

To bring an existing structure up to the level of seismic protection it needs, many new cost-effective advanced technologies have been developed by researchers working with MCEER, including faculty members from UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. Some of these technologies that already have been implemented in buildings and bridges include a "base-isolation" system, which protects a structure from the vibration of the soil during an earthquake, and special "seismic dampers," which can be compared to shock absorbers that lessen a building's response to a quake.

Gregory Baker, assistant professor of geology at UB, agrees that more needs to be done to prepare buildings and people for the possibility of earthquakes. He says that New York State residents and government officials shouldn't be complacent about the likelihood of another quake in the near future.

"Events like the Au Sable quake aren't really out the ordinary," says Baker. "It's something that happens in New York State once every 10 years. It's like getting a freak snowstorm in Louisiana. It becomes a problem because people aren't prepared to deal with it."

In addition to earthquake-engineering research, UB's MCEER currently is involved in projects to help buildings withstand acts of terrorism like those that occurred to the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11.

MCEER is a nationwide consortium on earthquake-engineering research, headquartered at UB. Funded principally by the National Science Foundation, the State of New York and the Federal Highway Administration, the center was established by the NSF in 1986 as the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research. Its mission is to reduce earthquake and damage losses through multidisciplinary team research and the application of advanced technologies that improve engineering, pre-earthquake engineering and post-earthquake recovery strategies.

For more information about MCEER and the information it's gathered about the April 20 earthquake in Au Sable, go to The site also contains notes from a conversation between MCEER representatives and officials from Plattsburgh and New York State hours after the quake.

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