Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Quake hazard reporting has pitfalls, journalists find

STANFORD -- Two Gary Larson cartoon animals are sitting in rocking chairs on a front porch.

"Earthquake's a-comin,' " says one.

"Yup," says the other.

To Salt Lake City Tribune science writer Lee Siegel, that pretty much sums up the earthquake safety attitude of public officials in Utah. In a May 8 seminar on earthquake hazard reduction, Siegel told Stanford geophysicists and civil engineers that Utah's political leaders consistently ignore the calls of their own earthquake experts for seismic retrofitting, tougher building codes and quake safety education.

Salt Lake City sits directly on top of the 230-mile-long Wasatch Fault, which geologists say is due for a major earthquake sometime within the next century. "Despite the threat, and despite the presence of knowledgeable scientists and engineers in Utah, and despite the fact that the general public is vaguely aware of the danger, Utah has done far too little to prepare," Siegel said.

He said that politicians remain complacent about these dangers largely because no major shakeup has occurred in 1,300 years ­ unfortunately, the last four magnitude 7 quakes occurred at regular intervals of about 1,350 years.

The Japanese have no problem recognizing that earthquakes cause havoc, said Tokyo journalist Sayaka Irie. She has reported on five magnitude 7-plus quakes since 1993, including the January 1995 Kobe earthquake that took 6,000 lives. Still, she told the Stanford seminar, Japan's mass media have had little interest in reporting on earthquake hazards except during the aftermath of the Kobe quake ­ and the government has even less interest in releasing hazard data.

Irie is a visiting scholar studying earthquake safety at Stanford's Blume Earthquake Engineering Center. She is a science writer for Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan's largest newspapers, with a daily circulation of 10 million.

She and Siegel spoke on the role of the press in raising earthquake awareness at one of a series of nine seminars organized by Brian Tucker, a consulting professor in geophysics and civil engineering. Tucker invited top architects, urban planners, insurance executives, engineers and geophysicists to show students and professors in geophysics and civil engineering how their research is translated into building codes and disaster plans.

Tucker is also president of Geohazards International, a non-profit group that recruits experts for pro bono consulting work, helping to reduce quake hazards in Third World schools and hospitals.

Irie said that one reason for the great loss of life at Kobe was that the city's building codes and disaster relief plans prepared it for flood and fire but not for earthquake. Because Japan sits on the boundary of three major tectonic plates, geophysicists know that no region there is completely safe from earthquakes. Irie said a myth of safety developed gradually in Kobe and western Japan, partly because the government has focused for 30 years on the heavily populated Tokai region in the east near Tokyo, where a magnitude 8 earthquake is expected.

The Japanese government has set up an elaborate monitoring system that could lead to an evacuation if experts suspect that its signals show a large quake is imminent. Unfortunately, the main effect of the Tokai monitoring system may be to make citizens complacent about earthquake safety, Irie said. Many geophysicists doubt that earthquake prediction is feasible at all, and even Japanese seismologists admit that it has uncertainties.