Saturday, October 17, 2009

Loma Prieta earthquake - a teachable moment

My 15 seconds of fame came in the aftermath of the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake with an interview by weatherman Al Roker on ABC's "Sunday Morning with Maria Shriver."

I had been appointed State Geologist of Utah by then Gov. Norm Bangerter, just one week earlier and was driving home from my new job when I heard the radio report of a major earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.

Utah has some pretty serious seismic hazards, including the Wasatch fault, one of the largest and potentially destructive normal faults, that underlies most of the urbanized Wasatch Front corridor with over 80% of the state's population. But many of us worried that the lack of earthquakes in recent, historical times, was lulling the state into complacency about the risk. Loma Prieta could be one of those teachable moments, when everyone's attention was focused.

So, when we got a call saying that Al was in Salt Lake doing another story (on venomous snakes as I recall) but wanted to do a feature on earthquake hazards outside of California, I jumped at the chance.

We met at the University of Utah Seismograph Stations where they had the requisite recording drums that were a visual staple in any news story. He had me in front of a large geologic map of Utah, and in a broad arm sweep, I showed the extent of the Wasatch fault and talked about the potential for a big quake in the region. [right, Wasatch fault crossing the Salt Lake Valley - see arrow. Credit, Rod Millar, Utah Geological Survey]

Behind the camera, UUSS seismologists Jim Pechmann and Sue Nava were giving me frantic signals that I had waved my arm a bit too far south, past the end of the Wasatch fault and on to other features. But hey, this was national tv, with Al Roker and Maria Shriver!

Yes, the Loma Prieta quake was a wake up call and energized many of us in the earthquake 'community', but it wasn't until the Northridge quake of January 17, 1994, along with a moderate quake in northern Utah felt by legislators in Salt Lake City, that Utah created a seismic safety commission with a goal of identifying and prioritizing earthquake hazard reduction and mitigation actions.

Every big earthquake teaches scientists and engineers a lot more about the nature and cause of these events but they also teach all of us about what we can do to be ready for them.

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