MONDAY,MAY 22, 2006

Sunday May 21, 2006 Dateline airs this report.

"U.S. scientists say it's not a question of if, but when."

This report takes the view through many different case scenarios. From the obvious areas such as southern California, San Francisco, Alaska, Japan, Italy and places around the world including the quake off Indonesia that triggered the devastating tsunami of 2004 to unsuspecting locations such as at-risk sections of the country you might never think of like the South, the Midwest, even the Northeast.   

You don't need to live on the infamous San Andreas Fault to experience the wrath of plate tectonics. Nearly 2,000 miles away, in the south-central states, where people are used to disasters like tornadoes and floods. There is a real risk of earthquakes.

In New Madrid, Mississippi, there is a mysterious geological fault that many Americans know nothing about. Nearly 200 years ago in 1811 and 1812, the ground was violently ripped apart by a series of exceptionally strong earthquakes. That could happen again tomorrow.  Eugene Schweig, Research Geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, states: "A repeat of what happened in 1811 or 1812, that is a magnitude 7.5, 7.7 earthquake occurring in the Mississippi Valley, would be a disaster."The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 sent shock waves all the way to Washington D.C. and the White House. The New Madrid quakes are still mysterious because researchers don't know where the fault line is that set them off. But seismologists say cities and towns up and down the Mississippi Valley are at risk for a catastrophe.   

According to seismologists, St. Louis is one of the cities at risk. But they say there's even more risk in other places especially Memphis, Tennessee. Schweig: "We would expect shaking to be quite severe in Memphis. It has a lot of old buildings, old infrastructure." Memphis and many of the cities and towns along the Mississippi have thousands of un-reinforced brick masonry buildings that could become deathtraps.

Over on the Eastern seaboard, there is another city that you might not think of at risk. August 31st, 1886, an earthquake that might have been as strong as a magnitude seven devastated Charleston, South Carolina. An estimated 90 percent of all the brick buildings in the city were destroyed and the shock waves were felt as far away as Milwaukee and Boston. City residents were panic-stricken and at least 60 people died. Little is known about the fault that caused the great Charleston quake, and some residents think this was just a freak occurrence that cannot happen again. "It could be a very dangerous assumption. And the likelihood of an earthquake in Charleston is probably somewhere between two and ten percent in the next 50 years, quite significant,"says Schweig.

In 1884, New York was jarred by a moderate quake. But in those days, the city was much smaller and not a maze of skyscrapers, tunnels and water mains, so there was not severe damage. In the future, New York might not be so lucky. Mary Lou Zoback, U.S.G.S., said, "There are a number of faults that we recognize running beneath New York. There are moderate to small earthquakes. And that always indicates there is potential for larger earthquakes. That's true in upstate New York and New England as well. Bear in mind that the chances of a big quake here are smaller than in the West. But if it happens, the water mains beneath Manhattan would rupture. They're ancient and brittle anyway. Flooding the subway tunnels. The streets are filled with debris. Fires are burning. Scary enough for you?"

The federal government says a big earthquake in San Francisco could have consequences far greater than anything we saw in New Orleans during Katrina. In the Sunset District of the city's west side, there are thousands of houses built in the 1940's where the house rests on top of the garage. Experts say that makes them especially vulnerable to quakes. There are 10 times as many people living in the region now. It is reported that there will be a 300-mile-long, 50-mile-wide swath of devastation. And it wo't just be San Francisco. It won't just be the Bay Area. It will be most of Northern California. Because of the scale, the number of people we expect to be homeless will be a true catastrophe. Software programs show that the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco international airport would shake severely in a giant quake, but are expected to survive.   

The BART, the rapid transit tube running underneath San Francisco Bay will fail. And by failing, it means it will crack. Water will rush in. Several of the stations on both sides are below sea level. The roads will liquefy. Much of the freeways are built on Bay fill. That ground is going to liquefy and literally just rip the freeways apart. Voters in the Bay Area recently approved a bond issue to strengthen the region's water and mass transit systems. But the work may not be moving fast enough. A recent report criticized San Francisco's disaster preparedness plan. Still San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says "the city is taking important steps to get prepared" and "I don't think there should be hysteria of being afraid." The Mayor also went on to say "That as we all saw in Katrina, it's not just the disaster, but the aftermath that can be devastating."

Seven major faults cut right through the bay area. You've heard of the San Andreas Fault, which set off the massive 1906 quake and runs for more than 800 miles through California. There's a lesser-known fault that scientists are more worried about right now. It's the Hayward fault, which is believed to be the more likely epicenter of the next big quake. It cuts right through many of the densely populated cities on the east side of the bay. The old Hayward city hall has been abandoned because it sits right on the fault.

So Dateline asks the question, are you prepared for the next big one? It is an easy answer. NO. Statistics show that only approximately 20% of the population of the United States is really prepared to be on their own's for 72 hours.

Preparing for earthquakes,  hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes,  fires, landslides, and winter storms can be very challenging. There is the potential of pandemics such as Bird Flu-Avian Influenza-N5N1, SARS and other unknown viruses. There are also manmade disasters such as terrorist attacks, chemical spills, and arson. Getting prepared is everyone's job. is in the business of helping people gather the resources they will need to Be prepared for the next Big One's or any other type of disaster.