Is East Coast prepared for truly powerful quake?

By Ben Nuckols

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 24 2011 3:46 p.m. MDT

In Culpeper, Va., about 35 miles from the epicenter, walls had buckled at the old sanctuary at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1821 and drew worshippers including Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Heavy stone ornaments atop a pillar at the gate were shaken to the ground. A chimney from the old Culpeper Baptist Church built in 1894 also tumbled down.

At the Washington National Cathedral, spokesman Richard Weinberg said the building's overall structure remains sound and damage was limited to "decorative elements."

Massive stones atop three of the four spires on the building's central tower broke off, crashing onto the roof. At least one of the spires is teetering badly, and cracks have appeared in some flying buttresses.

Repairs were expected to cost millions of dollars — an expense not covered by insurance.

"Every single portion of the exterior is carved by hand, so everything broken off is a piece of art," Weinberg said. "It's not just the labor, but the artistry of replicating what was once there."

The building will remain closed as a precaution, forcing officials to seek a new site for services to dedicate the memorial honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Other major cities along the East Coast that felt the shaking tried to gauge the risk from another quake.

A few hours after briefly evacuating New York City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city's newer buildings could withstand a more serious earthquake. But, he added, questions remain about the older buildings that are common in a metropolis founded hundreds of years ago.

"We think that the design standards of today are sufficient against any eventuality," he said. But "there are questions always about some very old buildings. ... Fortunately those tend to be low buildings, so there's not great danger."

An earthquake similar to the one in Virginia could do billions of dollars of damage if it were centered in New York, said Barbara Nadel, an architect who specializes in securing buildings against natural disasters and terrorism.

The city's 49-page seismic code requires builders to prepare for significant shifting of the earth. High-rises must be built with certain kinds of bracing, and they must be able to safely sway at least somewhat to accommodate for wind and even shaking from the ground, Nadel said.

Buildings constructed in Boston in recent decades had to follow stringent codes comparable to anything in California, said Vernon Woodworth, an architect and faculty member at the Boston Architectural College. New construction on older structures also must meet tough standards to withstand severe tremors, he said.

It's a different story with the city's older buildings. The 18th- and 19th-century structures in Boston's Back Bay, for instance, were often built on fill, which can liquefy in a strong quake, Woodworth said. Still, there just aren't many strong quakes in New England.

The last time the Boston area saw a quake as powerful as the one that hit Virginia on Tuesday was in 1755, off Cape Ann, to the north. A repeat of that quake would likely cause deaths, Woodworth said. Still, the quakes are so infrequent that it's difficult to weigh the risks versus the costs of enacting tougher building standards regionally, he said.

People in several of the affected states won't have much time to reflect before confronting another potential emergency. Hurricane Irene is approaching the East Coast and could skirt the Mid-Atlantic region by the weekend and make landfall in New England after that.

In North Carolina, officials were inspecting an aging bridge that is a vital evacuation route for people escaping the coastal barrier islands as the storm approaches.

Speaking at an earthquake briefing Wednesday, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray inadvertently mixed up his disasters.

"Everyone knows, obviously, that we had a hurricane," he said before realizing his mistake.

"Hurricane," he repeated sheepishly as reporters and staffers burst into laughter. "I'm getting ahead of myself!"

Associated Press writers Samantha Gross in New York City and Jay Lindsay in Boston contributed to this report.

Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at —http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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