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Is Oklahoma ready for a major earthquake?

Emergency response officials acknowledge the state is woefully unprepared. On its list of disaster priorities, Oklahoma ranks earthquakes at No. 11, behind tornadoes, winter storms, sink holes, flooding, wildfires, high winds, drought, thunderstorms, lightning and extreme heat.
by Adam Kemp Modified: December 27, 2013 at 10:00 am •  Published: December 26, 2013

The earthquake consortium, of which Oklahoma is a member, has been stressing the need for the state to review building inspection procedures, improve public education regarding earthquakes and provide additional first responder training, Wilkinson said.

But, he noted, this isn't California, where there is a history of such quakes and elected officials and the public are more responsive to such requests.

“The dynamics of preparing for an earthquake, especially in this part of the country, are especially difficult,” Wilkinson said

Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Kelly Cain says a new state disaster mitigation plan is in the works. The state last published a plan in June 2010, just as the recent swarm of about 6,000 earthquakes — half in the Oklahoma City area — began.

Of earthquakes measuring magnitude 4.0 or higher, the state has gone from averaging between one and three per year for the past three decades to about 40 a year since 2009. This year alone, the state has had more than 2,700 quakes.

While the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma is up, funding for earthquake research across the country is down, Wilkinson said. The budget is shrinking at the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency charged with earthquake monitoring. Much of the earthquake research is being done by a minimal staff.

“It essentially comes down to what we call the policy of disasters,” Wilkinson said of the tendency of governments to focus on recovery instead of preparedness. “Whatever was the latest and greatest is the one we want to take care of, which is really backward.”

A rocky start

In Oklahoma, efforts to improve the state's earthquake response plan are barely off the ground, said Bonnie McKelvey, an Oklahoma City Emergency Management Department employee who serves as state's earthquake program manager.

The state is trying to put together a committee of volunteers to review preparedness and response measures.

That includes mapping areas of the state most vulnerable to earthquake damage and training emergency workers how to react in the wake of such an event.

The ability to know and map which areas of the state are most likely to experience widespread destruction and need the most help could be critical to saving more lives, McKelvey said.

It also would be the committee's job to evaluate the structural integrity of buildings to know which would be good candidates for seismic retrofitting and which wouldn't. The effect of a severe earthquake on state-owned property and critical facilities is largely unknown.

It's uncertain what damage police and fire stations, hospitals and other emergency operations centers might sustain that could cripple their ability to respond to such an event. Masonry structures that are not reinforced would be expected to sustain heavy damage. Also of particular concern are bridges and highway overpasses undergoing repair or replacement. Many of the state's key highway bridges remain vulnerable. The same is true for many of the state's dams and school buildings.

“I don't have a real good sense of how well our buildings would hold up,” McKelvey said. “My guess is we would have a lot of buildings with some damage just because of a lot of our buildings are older, but that's just an educated guess.”

by Adam Kemp
Enterprise Reporter
Adam Kemp is an enterprise reporter and videographer for the Oklahoman and Kemp grew up in Oklahoma City before attending Oklahoma State University. Kemp has interned for the Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Gazette and covered Oklahoma State...
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