Street Smart Chicago

Could Haiti Happen Here? If disaster struck Chicago, would you be ready?

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By Tom Lynch and Ray Pride

Imagine the cool crisp air, Thursday, February 4, 2010. The temperature’s unseasonable again, creasing 40. Stepping out into the day, deep breaths are taken across the city. The sun shines off the glass-clad skyscrapers along the Chicago River. The Brown Line clatters, clickety-clackety and clean as a toy over the bridge above the waters. A tall boat’s coming through, it’s after morning rush, the bridge tenders point State, Dearborn, LaSalle, Franklin, to the nourishing sunlight. There’s a cloud in the sky, a large white shred, moving west slower than a stagecoach, as if it’s been part of the prairie forever.

The first rumble is more like a grumble. Cheap car alarms on cheaper cars sound. Antsy cats rise to fearful attention. The skies go still. The air stalls, hum of man and nature just hangs for an instant before the rumble comes.

The streets bounce with canisters, like stovepipes, like drains from rooftop water towers. They clatter from the sky: cellular towers shatter in mid-syllable, shrapnel dazzling in the brilliant late winter sun. The projected face in Millennium Park freezes, sizzles to black. BAM! Another punch, another lurch, another roll: the cloud moves to the lake, placid, impassive, several cars crash into several more and into the parked cars along Michigan, rumble, crash: The Bean drops from its mooring, drops, rolls, onrushing down Michigan where the cars have parted, reflecting that one white cloud as it wobbles down—then the center line tears like a paper towel, neatly like a perforation, and The Bean is swallowed by the warm earth. And it shifts again…

It’s always an abstract apocalypse until it occurs next door. Tragedies are what happen through the television screen, the Internet, right, much farther than arm’s length?

The first shocks struck Port-au-Prince on January 13, the largest being measured at a 7.0 magnitude. Aftershocks greater than 5 struck on Sunday. More than 150,000 bodies have been counted. A terribly poor country ransacked by its leaders and history is now poorer still. Hourly indignities deepen into despair. Water stops, no flour arrives, bread’s not baked, there are not enough blades for hacksaws for emergency amputations. 1,844 miles away, detached outpourings of genuine concern share conversation with small talk of modern-day Chicago annoyances, like railing against the parking situation or comparing cellular service dead spots over coffee or wine. It could never happen here, could it?

Preparedness may be the modern world’s bane. Our hearts are rent when terrible devastation occurs, but we like to think it won’t happen here, wherever our “here” happens to be (that doesn’t include those who build on flood plains, on the side of a California mountain or in a tornado alley). There but for the grace of God go I, but where do we go from here in the case of even the most unlikely event?

Chicago, in its history, is no stranger to disaster, from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed nearly 300 and left thirty percent of the city’s population homeless, to the heat wave of 1995, which killed up to 600. There are agencies in the city and state that are designed to prepare communities for natural disasters; they operate on the assumption that anything can happen. However, further complicating their job are the varying degrees of unlikelihood natural disasters will occur in Chicago—Haydar Al-Shukri, director of the Arkansas Earthquake Center, insists that an earthquake could not, at least not an earthquake spawned by the well known New Madrid fault. The Wabash Valley fault, which is located just east of St. Louis, might be a bigger threat after all; it has produced three earthquakes with a magnitude over 5 in the last twenty years.

Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, or OEMC, was launched in 1995 to coordinate the city’s police, fire and medical services to 911 calls. The OEM, a department of the OEMC, specifically prepares Chicago for disaster emergencies and works as the city’s liaison with the Department of Homeland Security. At, information and tips are tagged under three headings: “Ready?” “Respond!” and “Recover.” Under the “Ready?” heading, we’re instructed to keep enough food handy for three days in case of an emergency; to design a family plan on how to meet after a large-scale event occurs, as communication lines may be severed; to keep a “Go Bag” in case we have to abandon our homes, kept in an easy-to-reach place, full of food and supplies. (If you can, the site suggests, keep additional “Go Bag”s in your car and at the office.)

Statewide, the Springfield-based Illinois Emergency Management Agency, or IEMA, provides assistance in the case of emergency not only to disaster relief in Illinois, but also to areas as far-reaching as Wisconsin and even Minnesota.

“The first priority would be the protection of life and property—those life-safety issues are paramount, first and foremost. That’s the priority for any public-safety agency,” says Andrew Velasquez, director of IEMA, a position he’s held for nearly three years. “Following that would be the protection of the critical infrastructure used to assist individuals impacted by the emergency—hospitals, things of that nature.”

Velasquez is quick to point out that Illinois is not immune to natural disasters and that, with the abundant flooding in 2008, there have been nine Presidentially declared disaster areas in Illinois in the last three years.

“I like to tell people that we cover everything,” Velasquez says. “The two T’s and everything in between: tornados and terrorism and everything in between.”

IEMA coordinates closely with local units of government in situations of disaster preparedness and response, and part of Velasquez’s focus is on keeping the public informed, “to engage the public in personal preparedness, to help them with the steps they can take to prepare for a disaster.” This includes distributing literature and posting as much information possible online, including instructions to keep enough supplies to last up to seventy-two hours, “because the potential exists that the government may not be able to get to you until that time.”

“One of the major concerns of mine these days is that few Americans know where they would turn to for vital information if there was a disaster where they lived,” says Eric Klinenberg of NYU, author of the 2002 chronicle “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” the subject of which was this city’s 1995 summer heat wave that left approximately 600 dead. “For instance, [if a dirty bomb went off], should you flee and get as far from the city as possible, or hunker down and try to stay out from harm’s way? Those kind of questions are very difficult to answer. Do you have a plan for coordinating the response of family members? Who is gonna pick up the children?”

Klinenberg isn’t hopeful. “Anyone online could have easy access [to the necessary information], but we’ve known for generations that most people have very little time or interest in preparing for the unlikely disaster, given that most of us have enough to manage every day. There’s something unpleasant and undesirable about confronting the prospect of catastrophe—it’s precisely the last thing you want to discuss when you come home to be with your family at the end of a tough day.”

When you ask Klinenberg if there is a limit to what a state or city can do to prepare itself, he says, “I’m sure there is a limit, but we’re nowhere near it.”

Last summer the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, rated Illinois’ security program a 91 out of a possible 100, putting ours in the top four percent of state programs. Velasquez says that during the extended periods of time in which no disasters occur, IEMA continually works to strengthen its strategies. “We are always working to enhance our preparedness,” he says. “We can’t always depend on the federal government, per se, for assistance. If you have a multi-state event, it may require the government to prioritize where the resources will go. Recognizing that, we work hard to be a self-sustaining state.”

Velasquez says that the growth of social media, such as Facebook, also helps assist emergency-response agencies in providing the public with anticipatory tips, plus frequent updates if an emergency does indeed occur. In other words, Illinois’ emergency-response programs continually improve.

“We handle these disasters well,” Velasquez says. “I think the strength behind a successful response is the strong collaboration we have with our partners—we can’t do this alone. Not just state, but local units of government, non-government organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army, the private sector… What’s key is collaborating, the three C’s. Communication. Coordination. Collaboration. We take those three C’s to heart in Illinois.”

Chicago isn’t likely to have an earthquake of Haiti-like magnitude. The City of Chicago is in a low seismic area and the City Building Code does not require design for seismic, or earthquake loads. But, “If the Big One hit, we would be in trouble,” one structural expert, not wanting his name used making such a bold statement, told us.

From the distance of almost 200 years, the worst earthquakes recorded within the U.S., the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, recede into lore. Across 50,000 square miles starting in the Mississippi Valley in Missouri, with shocks felt as far as New York, the world shook. The rivers ran backward, the mighty Ohio. Even the birds in the sky cried their surprise. It was worse than the 1906 San Francisco quake. That area is still active: could it reach from Memphis northward even to the Magnificent Mile?

“The New Madrid seismic zone is not a single fault,” says Haydar Al-Shukri, director of the Arkansas Earthquake Center. It’s a zigzag of fault systems and they intersect each other. We have at least four to five of these faults running northeast and southeast. All of these faults are currently active. It’s not continuous. Some of these faults generate small-magnitude earthquakes.” Epic catastrophe happens only every century or five centuries, however. Al-Shukri compares New Madrid’s terrible potential to a similar seismic zone in India that caused the deadly 2001 Gujarat earthquakes. The factors that cause major seismic events “don’t change over a short period of time. It takes a very long period of time for the fault characteristics to change. So, we anticipate a major earthquake will happen in the New Madrid seismic zone.”

How soon? “This is not a prediction, only statistics on the past behavior of the fault do mean that about every century we will see an earthquake of magnitude 6.5. The last one happened more than a century ago, 1895, when a 6.5 magnitude earthquake happened along the New Madrid zone. Now, for a larger-magnitude earthquake, we’re talking about 7.5 to 8, almost every 500 to 1,000 years. So we’re not due for a very major earthquake, from 7 to 8, but we are due for magnitude 6.5. Now, 6 is going to be damaging. This depends on where the earthquake is going to happen. If it happens in the southern segment of the New Madrid seismic zone, it will also affect the Memphis area. So we are going to see some damages in these areas and sorry to say we will see some injuries and possibly death.”

But could it ripple as far as Chicago? Al-Shukri quickly sets matters straight. “No. No, no. No. This fault, the currently active segments of the New Madrid seismic zone extend about 120 kilometers from northeast Arkansas into southwest Missouri all the way into southwest Illinois. It doesn’t extend all the way to Chicago. It doesn’t extend to St. Louis, no. [An] event in the New Madrid seismic zone, I do not anticipate having any major effects on the Chicago area. We don’t see a major earthquake zone or active fault in the Chicago area. An earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone would be too far from the Chicago area to cause any damage.”

“The major contributors to seismic hazard in the Chicago area are the New Madrid seismic zone and the Wabash Valley fault system in southeastern Illinois, southwestern Indiana, and the adjacent corner of Kentucky,” agrees S. K. Ghosh. Ghosh is a seismic and building-code consultant with offices in Chicago and California. Ghosh emailed from Abu Dhabi, where he was working with the Emirate there to adopt the International Building Code. “Both being significant distances away from the city, ground motion in Chicago is likely to be long-period, with ground moving back and forth in a ponderous fashion, rather than rapidly. This will affect the taller, the more flexible buildings; the short, stocky, stiff buildings will not be shaken much at all.”

Most cities, counties and states now have building codes based on the 2003 or 2006 editions of the IBC, Ghosh says. “According to seismic hazard maps in these codes, seismic hazard is low in downtown Chicago and to the north and west. However, as you go to the south, southwest or southeast of downtown, the seismic hazard is not insignificant any more and needs to be considered in design.” Most Chicago suburbs have adopted these standards, but the Chicago Building Code itself has fallen behind the times, he adds, with the 2000 IBC still not adopted by the City. “This is a situation that needs rectifying, although there definitely is no immediate cause for alarm,” he reassures.

But building codes have their own, built-in compromise. “Don’t forget, building code, it’s a policy,” Al-Shukri notes. “So it needs to be enforced by the politician. Some of these it’s not only the scientific community that’s going to be the judge on it, but the politician, too. The status of the economy, all these aspects, because it’s impacting the region and the economy. We try to not overestimate the building code, but we try to balance between the cost and the safety. And this is where the building codes need to be very careful of what is the safety, what is the major factor that’s going to go into the building code that [insures that a building] is going to be safe.”

In the early hours of April 18, 2008, some of us were awoken by an unnatural rumbling, a 5.2-magnitude earthquake that centered near the Southern Illinois town of West Salem. Though the quake was felt as far as Alabama and Nebraska, there was little structural damage to be found and no person was hurt. The earthquake spawned from the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone, adjacent to the New Madrid. Anna Mae-Williams, a West Salem resident, told the Chicago Sun-Times that she thought the house was falling down on her.

“I tell you, it was scary,” she said. “There was no warning at all.”

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