More preparedness needed to cope with earthquakes

The shock that devastated El Asnam, Algeria, Oct. 10, has again dramatized the fact that earthquake "sociology" has not caught up with earthquake science. Countries with quake-prone regions -- whether Algeria or the United States -- are not properly organized to cope with the hazzards which seismologists now can define.

In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has put it bluntly in reporting its review of earthquake preparedness. ". . . the nation is not sufficiently prepared for a catastrophic earthquake in California, should such a disaster occur," it warns.

FEMA has more in mind than building standards, land use zoning, and other preventine measures aimed at minimizing quake damage. These are important and, while California has made more progress here than have other parts of the US, no one considers the measures so far taken to be sufficient. However, FEMA is also concerned with inadequate preparation for disaster aid -- both immediate rescue facilities and emergency financing.

The Algerian quake destroyed something like 80 percent of the city and killed on the or of 20,000 people. A major quake, hitting the Los Angeles area for example, is expected to cause comparable damage and casualties. The sudden demand for aid -- with damage costs running pperhaps to $70 billion -- would severely stain even federal resources.

In giving such warning, agencies such as FEMA and seismologists generally are not being prophetes of doom. On the contrary, earth scientists now know enough about earthquakes to help those at risk foresee and minimize their potential for destruction.

Most of the world's earthquakes occurwhere the plates which make up our planet's outer crust interact. Along the California coast the Pacific plate slides past the plate carrying North America. In the Algerian region, the plate carrying Africa is overriding the Eurasian plate.This has pushed up the Atlas mountains, among other things. It's little wonder that such regions are famous for their earthquakes.

Indeed, El Asnam, which also had a bad quake in 1954, appears to sit astride the boundary between the two plates. Thus, although siesmologists do not understand all that is going on here, they do know that devastating quakes are to be expected. Thisis why they insist that greater prepradness is in order.

Building codes in El Asnam, for example, have specified a 10 percent extra stiffening to resist earthquake stress (10 percent extra wight static load). However, Dr. F. K. Farma of Imperial College, London, A civil engineer who has studied the area, says "for the quake the needed 50 percent," according to the journal Nature. This says nothing of the folly of rebuilding in the El Asnam area.

Now FEMA is adding its voice to those of others who have warned of lack of preparedness in the United States. It is more than time that the earthquake science were tanslated into a greater measure of earthquake safety.

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