Could the big Wasatch Front earthquake be just around the corner?
National experts say there's no doubt about it, and local experts are nodding their heads in general agreement."We should expect something greater than a 5.0 (on the Richter Scale) on the Wasatch Front every 10 years," said state geologist Genevieve Atwood. "We do not live on a stable Earth."
According to geological evidence, the Wasatch Front should expect a 6.0 earthquake every 50 to 60 years, a 6.5 earthquake every 100 years or so and a 7.0 every 200 to 300 years.
"And you can count on a whopper of 7.5 (or greater) every 400 to 500 years," she added. "I'm not saying it will happen in five to 10 years. But there's such a good chance of it happening over the next 50 years it would be foolish not to prepare."
Evidence of massive temblors is clearly visible in the rocks along the Wasatch Front. One site in Rock Canyon near Provo reveals a 15-foot shift in the rock from one such earthquake.
Atwood's comments came on the heels of a symposium in Washington, D.C., to discuss earthquake hazards and the federal response to such hazards. Robert L. Ketter, director of the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said the problem is public awareness.
"The major problem is lack of awareness that there is a problem," said Ketter. "The public is not concerned because people have not felt a quake in their lifetime. This (meeting) is an effort to shake up that complacency."
Ketter warned that a major earthquake is nearly certain to strike the eastern two-thirds of the nation in the next 20 years, threatening havoc in a region unprepared for such a disaster.
While he could not pin down a specific location for the temblor, he said likely sites include the areas of Memphis, Tenn., Charleston, S.C., Boston and New York City. He also included one Western area on the list: Salt Lake City.
"However, the probability of one occurring somewhere in the eastern United States before the year 2000 can be considered better than 75 percent to 95 percent. Before the year 2010, nearly 100 percent."
While talk of earthquakes is rare east of the Rocky Mountains, it's commonplace in the West. But awareness hasn't always translated into public policy in terms of tougher building codes.
"There are some who feel strongly we ought to stiffen all the codes," said Atwood. "And there are others who say the problem is more than just codes. It'sthe training of inspectors and the implementation of codes."
Unlike Westerners, residents of the states east of the Rocky Mountains have paid little attention to the danger of quakes. There are no building codes calling for quake-resistant buildings in the East, Ketter said, and little public notice of the danger.
And yet the strongest earthquakes ever to strike the United States occurred in the Memphis, Tenn.-New Madrid, Mo., region in 1811-1812, Ketter said. A disastrous quake shook Charleston, S.C., in 1886, and other strong quakes have been felt in the Boston area and along the U.S.-Canadian border.
A tremor that shook Jamaica Bay in New York in the 1800s, he said, if repeated today would cause as much as $7 billion in damage in the Brooklyn area.
Public complacency is not only inherent in Easterners. Atwood said most Westerners, including Utahns, have the attitude that because a major earthquake hasn't happened that it won't happen.
"It's a form of denial," she said. "If people in 1983 had known about the danger of mudslides, they would have prepared for them and would probably have prevented much of the damage from happening.
"We know there have been whopper earthquakes in prehistoric times. Our challenge is to be prepared for a whopper in historic times."