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Earthquake Preparedness Month: SEMA Program Manager Says To Drop, Cover, And Get Insured

Missouri State Emergency Management Agency
This SEMA map indicates earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 2.5. The blue dots indicate those happening before 1973, and red indicates those after 1972.

For the state of Missouri, February is Earthquake Awareness Month. Missouri is a high-risk, active earthquake zone, and it’s the job of the state Emergency Management Agency to remind everyone of just that. Here in the southeast, that risk is even higher due to the New Madrid Seismic Zone; we experience over 200 quakes each year. We spoke to earthquake program manager, Jeff Briggs, who gave us some tips on what to do if a bad quake hits home.

Lindsey: So, Mr. Briggs, has anything changed this year in terms of earthquake preparedness?


Briggs: No, the tips are the same. The key is, for earthquakes, the main thing to keep in mind is that you're likely to be hurt in an earthquake by debris - things falling on you. We encourage people to prepare ahead of time to look around where you are - in your school, in your home, in your business - look around and see where there are things that might fall on you and hurt you in an earthquake. If you have a large bookcase that’s not hooked to the wall, maybe you have a heavy object on a high shelf, maybe there’s a fixture, a ceiling fan or something in your ceiling that needs to be well-secured; things like that are good things to reflect on and do something about now before the shaking starts. The trick to earthquakes is that unlike other disasters, you receive no warning. There’s not going to be a siren like in a tornado, you’re not going to get a lot of rain ahead of time so you know to seek higher ground from a flood. Shaking’s going to happen when you're doing what you’re normally doing. Experts haven’t figured out a way to predict when earthquakes are going to hit. That’s why preparedness is especially important for earthquakes. We get no advance warning, so anything you can do now to prepare your environment to limit the debris will be very helpful.


L: And the agency released information that scientists say large earthquakes in this zone still pose a risk. How high a risk exactly are we exposed to here?


B: The experts are not really specific on that simply because they haven’t figured out a way to tell exactly. But they do have an estimate. They say that a magnitude 6 earthquake, which is enough to cause quite a bit of shaking and be felt across a large area of the state, there’s a 25-40% chance that we’ll get a magnitude 6 or higher earthquake in the next 50 years. Now, the chances of a magnitude 7 earthquake or higher - which is a very damaging earthquake, kind of like the earthquakes that happened a couple hundred years ago - chances of a magnitude 7 or higher are 7-10% in the next 50 years.


L: What kind of damage would those cause? Would they take down a building? Would they knock a few things off the shelves? I’m assuming more than that.


B: Right. Well, if there’s a very strong earthquake, like a magnitude 7 or higher, there will be a lot of damage. Certainly down in your area in southeast Missouri; it’s where the damage will be most greatly felt because the New Madrid Seismic Zone is centered down in the bootheel. Older buildings, unreinforced masonry buildings, things like brick buildings that are older are not built to withstand very strong shaking like that. It is unlikely that we’ll see a lot of building collapses. That’s something we see sometimes in other countries that aren’t built up to modern building codes, so it’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of building collapses. But we certainly would see a lot of building damage, especially in those older brick homes. And unfortunately, there are a whole lot of those in the southeast part of the state, and up to St. Louis. So we’ll see a lot of building damage, and a lot of debris coming from those older buildings. Now, more modern buildings, ones that are maybe built in the last 15 or 20 years, have a lot of structural steel and more modern reinforcements in them; they withstand better. Also interestingly, wooden structures, even older wood homes or wood buildings, do withstand earthquakes better, just because they’ve got some natural flexibility built into them. So there’s risk for all buildings, but those older brick homes are the ones that are most at-risk.


L: And the big question, if someone experiences an earthquake inside or outside, what’s the safest thing for them to do?


B: When you’re outside, or really if you’re inside, the general advice is the same. We encourage everybody, as soon as you feel shaking start, know what to do ahead of time, and that is stop, cover, and hold on. What that means is to drop to the ground wherever you are before the shaking knocks you down. The risk in people running around a lot is that you’re going to get knocked over, [and] debris might hit you. You put yourself in greater harm by trying to run. So drop wherever you are, and then cover under a desk or table if that’s accessible to you. Otherwise, just do the best you can to drop down and cover your head with your arms. That will protect you further from any falling debris. Then hold on. That means to hold on to whatever is protecting you until the shaking stops. So if people can remember - when they feel shaking to drop, cover, and hold on - that’s your best chance to stay safe.


L: Okay. Any other tips or things we might not have thought about?


B: You know, one other thing that might be worth mentioning, especially down in your neck of the woods in southeast Missouri, is earthquake insurance. That’s a real risk here in Missouri for homeowners who may not realize that your standard insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage. Typically homeowner’s policy covers fire or tornado, but not earthquake. Earthquake coverage by most insurance companies is a separate thing you’ve got to buy additionally, called an endorsement. So, many people may not realize that, and we’re afraid that after a large earthquake, people will not only lose their homes, but they may also find out too late that their homeowner’s insurance does not pay them to rebuild their homes. A State Department of Insurance survey a couple of years ago showed that in the New Madrid Seismic Zone affected area, which is most of southeast Missouri, only about 20% of homeowners have earthquake insurance. So, I want to bring people’s attention to that, and suggest that if you live in that zone, especially if you may have an older brick home, it may be worth a call to your insurance agent to find out what it would cost; what’s the premium, what is the deductible? And, educate yourself on the fact that you probably don’t have insurance, and you may want to find out what it costs and determine whether it’s worth it for you to have it.