Watch CBS News

Haiti Quake Raises Flags on U.S. Hot Spots

In the "Where America Stands" series, CBS News and our print partner, USA Today, are looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

In the past 20 years, there have been 26 earthquakes measuring 6.5 or higher in places like San Francisco and Northridge, Calif. They turn high-rises into rubble. They happen without warning, and our report card shows America gets mixed grades when it comes to preparing for and predicting earthquakes, reports CBS News Correspondent Daniel Sieberg.

Overall, researchers tell us America gets a "B+" for knowing what causes earthquakes, but a "C+" when it comes to securing infrastructure. Short-term predictions are simply not possible yet, and earthquakes can happen in places you wouldn't expect according to Oliver Boyd with the U.S. Geological Survey

"It could happen just like that?" Sieberg asked Boyd.

"Yeah it could happen tomorrow, next year," Boyd said.

In the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 12, a new CBS News poll released Saturday night during the next 20 years. Only a third think the federal government is adequately prepared to deal with it.

Complete Coverage: Devastation in Haiti

Consider this scenario: 3,500 people dead, millions left homeless and more than $300 billion in damage. But this scenario isn't in California. It's in America's heartland. That's the prediction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency if a 7.7-magnitude earthquake or higher were to strike in the New Madrid Fault Zone.

It would be felt from Mississippi to Illinois to the northeast, and it's happened before. In 1811 and 1812, massive earthquakes rocked this area. It was so strong the mighty Mississippi River reversed direction, and bells were rung in Boston.

"A New Madrid type event would probably be on par with Katrina," Boyd said, referring to the massive hurricane that flooded New Orleans in 2005.

But the New Madrid Fault Zone is just one earthquake hot spot in the United States. The problem is even in known earthquake zones, without reliable predictions, the results can be devastating.

On the morning of Jan. 16, 1994, Sheila Chulick would've done anything for even a few seconds notice.

"I had a fractured skull, a bruised kidney and six broken ribs," Chulick said.

In a heartbeat, the 6.7 Northridge earthquake flattened Chulick's building.

"Do you feel lucky you survived?" Sieberg asked Chulick.

"I have my moments where I've felt lucky, and I also have moments where I have asked 'Why me?'" Chulick said.

Today, Chulick still wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, almost the exact time of the quake. It haunts her, even in her new home outside Las Vegas.

"If I'm in an elevator going in a tall building, my mind still goes to well what am I going to do if I can't get out of here," Chulick said.

Scientists across the country are searching for a solution.

"Earthquake prediction, nobody has reliably done that," said Ernie Majer, head earth sciences division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. "It would be more towards earthquake understanding."

To achieve that goal, researchers like Majer need to feel the pulse of seismic activity. During a recent test, Majer and his team were able to see specific changes in the ground hours before a small earthquake hit.

"I'm sure you've heard of the acoustic imaging people do for pregnant women, things like that," Majer said. "The earth is a lot more complicated than the human body, but it's a similar analogy."

Here's how it works: After boring about a mile into the ground, two instruments are placed about 100 feet apart. A sound wave is sent between them, revealing how the rock is affected by stress and recording even the smallest of tremors.

"Is it possible one day that these types of devices in the ground will lead to an early warning system?" Sieberg asked Majer.

"Possibly, who knows, maybe 10, 15 years from now, by understanding the physics of the process and watching it and saying 'Uh-oh, there's one coming,'" Majer said.

At $5,000 a piece, these are the only instruments in the country right now. By comparison, they are installed all over Japan.

Since the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed more than 6,000 people, Japan has annually poured about $100 million into earthquake research.

"The earthquake is one of the, the major concerns for the Japanese people," said Naoshi Hirata, director of earthquake research at the University of Tokyo.

The Japanese are fine-tuning early warning systems, which have the ability to stop trains before they go over bridges and alert people to evacuate dangerous buildings.

But until scientists are able to accurately predict earthquakes, they are working to make buildings safer.

Khalid Mosalam, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, works in one of 15 university labs across the United States testing port stability, how much stress steel beams can handle and what happens inside a building during an earthquake.

"Any heavy content of the building if not secured to the walls of the building, they would tend to be tossed around," Mosalam said, adding that such objects would also cause injuries or worse.

Some buildings provide a silent but powerful warning like at Berkeley where a huge crack has opened up through Memorial Stadium, which sits right over the Hayward Fault.

Campus officials have proposed a $140 million project that would put the two halves of the stadium on giant plastic plates so they could slide against each other in the event of an earthquake.

In Memphis, an office high-rise offers more than meets the eye.

According to Boyd, it has a base-isolation system to help isolate the building from the ground motions of an earthquake.

"So this building is not actually on the ground?" Sieberg asked Boyd.

"This building is not connected to the ground except through these cushions," Boyd said.

Despite being in the cross-hairs of a major earthquake, the building is the only one its kind in the mid-South with that kind of construction.

Sixteen years ago, Chulick's world came crashing down around her. As she re-builds her life, she hopes others will be prepared for when - not if - the next big one hits.

"I'd like to think I'm a pretty strong person for most things," Chulick said. "But the earthquake, I haven't been able to shake that, so I don't know, I don't know if it will ever go away."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.