Could It Happen Here?…We Might Get Rocked Away

Last Sunday night, the Fox Family channel presented a new feature film with the frightening but unlikely title of "Earthquake in New York." It was a story about a Los Angeles family who are devastated when their baby son is crushed to death in their home during an earthquake. Fed up with the West Coast’s constant vulnerability to quakes, they pick up and move to the stability of New York City.
The movie then takes the viewer to the family four years later enjoying their life on the East Coast. Suddenly, during one morning’s rush hour a tremor suddenly jolts the unsuspecting City, followed by a staggering series of shocks and after-shocks. The film follows the plight of the family through a series of standard disaster movie crises and spectacular special effects depicting the destruction of the City and such landmarks as the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty.
Most viewers could be forgiven if they saw the film as just another science fiction destruction of New York — after all in the past year we’ve seen the City blitzed by space aliens in "Independence Day," crushed to bits by "Godzilla" and blasted to kingdom come by comets and asteroids in "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." So was "Earthquake in New York" just another Hollywood horror fantasy? After all, full scale earthquakes happen in California, not New York!
Wrong. Aside from the film’s fictional family plot, the frightening scenario of New York’s destruction by a major earthquake not only could happen here; experts in the field of geology and seismology say it will happen. And we are totally unprepared for it. And while the movie only showed the disaster destroying Manhattan, the fact is that Queens would probably be hit far harder, with the loss of life and property far higher than the rest of the City.
While Southern California has been preparing for the worst for decades with every aspect of building design and construction incorporating the very latest advances that would resist the forces of a seismic event, only recently has the City begun bringing New York’s building codes more in line with those already in existence on the West
Many clearly remember the minor quake that struck upstate New York in October 1985 but was clearly felt in the early morning hours right here in the City. Historically, the epicenter of the most powerful earthquake to rattle New York was located just south of the Rockaway coastline. The quake occurred on August 10, 1884 and was estimated to be above 5 on the Richter scale. Although it was felt throughout the area that comprises present day New York City and was as powerful as the February 1990 earthquake that shook the Los Angeles area in 1990, little damage was reflected in Queens because at that time the area was largely undeveloped land with a very meager population. But experts in the study of earthquakes have told The Queens Courier that if such an earthquake were to hit today, major devastation would occur.
One of the principle reasons for this is that modern day Queens is built on largely "soft" soil, much of which is actually landfill. Both JFK and LaGuardia airports are built on landfill, as is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and many large residential communities in both northeast Queens, such as College Point and in South Queens such as Howard Beach. Tom Hanks, a geophysisist from Mezlo, California said that what happens to these types of landfill areas when a quake strikes is a process known as "liqification," where the once seemingly sturdy land is shaken and reacts much like a liquid subjected to a heavy blow. When San Francisco suffered its last serious quake in 1989 many buildings in the center city stood up well because they were on firm land and the City had taken many earthquake-proof measures over the past few decades. But this was not the case in that city’s Marina district which is similar to much of Queens. That area suffered immense damage to homes which instantly collapsed and highways which collapsed like pancakes.
Although last week’s fictional movie convincingly showed the destruction in Manhattan, in fact because that Borough is built largely on bedrock, many of the buildings there might stand, with the exception of brownstowns, older structures and landfill developments such as Battery Park City. But Manhattan would face — on a magical scale — the same horrific problems that would face Queens and the other boroughs as well. Broken gas lines would burst causing massive fires, watermains would burst also causing massive flooding and cutting off the City’s water supply from the rescue efforts and the populace at large.
Subways would be immobilized by power failure and cave-ins. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the other underwater arteries would snap. Although the suspension bridges spanning the City are probably the most structurally capable objects to withstand a quake, the approaches to these bridges would probably suffer enough damage to make the bridges obsolete. The City’s complex underground infrastructure of electrical lines and other essential services were built long ago and never designed to withstand the blows of an earthquake.
The period after the initial quake is often worse than the first blow. The confusion, panic, cut-off of power and communications, the inability of firefighters to put out widespread blazes, or of rescue crews to get to the scenes of the disaster because bridges, tunnels, roadways and even the two Queens airports have become inoperable and the occurrence of after-shocks that continue the devastation all set off a nightmare scenario. within minutes there is certain to be an overwhelming number of casualties in minutes. Eleven hospitals serve Queens two million population, all which would most certainly sustain some level of damage. Often on a normal day, these facilities operate at close to 90 percent of capacity. If there are approximately 4,500 beds in Queens’ hospitals and about 300 beds are available when a quake hits, this means there would only be room for .001 percent of the Borough’s residents. That assumes the shocks have not reached the hospitals services and facilities.
With all of the potential nightmare surrounding us, you might wonder what is being done to prevent the calamity of all times? First, earthquakes are almost totally unpredictable and there is no way to actually stop Mother Earth’s tantrums. So the only things that could be done would be to attempt to establish some kind of early warning system, develop stringent inspections and regulations for all City structures and to place a comprehensive emergency plan to deal with the disaster.
Seismologist after seismologist have described the ground in Flushing as "Jell-o." One of them told New York Magazine last year that "If you’re looking for a poor location, from a seismic perspective, you would not want to live in Flushing." Or, he quickly added, any area off the Rockaways. Even before the 1884 New York quake, there was one in 1737 and both were of the same magnitude and both emanated from roughly the same spot off the Rockaways 147 years apart. So, it’s been 111 years since the last one which means, seismologists say, that there is an extremely good likelihood of another one coming out of there sometime between now and 2030. Columbia University seismologist Klaus Jacob wonders why people don’t seem to be listening to the dire possibilities. "If we were ever to have a major quake here, forget it. New York as we know it as a cultural, business, population institution will not exist if we have a 7 earthquake." A resident of our Borough might add Shea Stadium, the National Tennis Center, Queens Museum, and the Unisphere, the airports to Klaus’ list.
Klaus is one of a growing group of esteem seismologists, geophysists, engineers and others who already hear the rumblings of the earthquake our City is not ready for and doesn’t believe will happen. But just in the past month there were rumbles across the Hudson in New Jersey, faint and minor maybe but too close for comfort maybe, too.
All the world rests on an unsettled earth. We in New York — and Queens are no exception.

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