A major earthquake will come to a city near you. Are these tremors signs of the big one? No one knows.

Photo By Todd Upton

Tick! It’s coming. Tick! There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Tick! With every passing second, the Reno area moves closer to the inevitable: a disastrous earthquake that will rip apart not only huge numbers of buildings, but many, many lives. If you’ve been shaken by the recent rash of quakes, be forewarned: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

RENO, Nev. (AP)—The community that’s often called The Biggest Little City in the World—Reno, Nevada—is virtually cut off from the rest of the world tonight, following a devastating earthquake in the pre-dawn hours this morning. Hundreds of people were killed, according to a state official, and thousands of buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged throughout the city and beyond. Deaths and significant destruction are also reported in Carson City, the state capital, about 30 miles to the south.

Rescue workers continue their frantic struggle to reach people trapped under mountains of brick and other debris, according to the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. A spokesperson—speaking on a satellite telephone from Carson City following the failure of both “landline” and cell phone services—told the Associated Press that “certainly hundreds of people are dead or missing and probably thousands more—we just don’t know yet—are injured” following the quake, which registered 7.2 on the Richter scale.

The initial tremor struck just before 3 a.m. (2:56 a.m. PDT) and was felt 450 miles away in Las Vegas, where terrified tourists ran screaming from hotels along the famous “Strip.” The first tremor was followed within an hour by two strong aftershocks which caused a number of structures—already weakened by the first quake—to collapse. State officials estimate that more than 300,000 people are without electricity and water, and may continue to be without utility services for at least several days. A number of fires—the result of gas main ruptures—were still burning out of control as darkness fell over what the president has already declared a federal disaster area…

That story is—so far—merely a work of fiction, but the experts all agree that—someday—it will become reality. It’s a fact that ‘the big one,’ the one that makes last Friday’s 4.7 shake seem like a mere hiccup—could happen at any time. And, no, that’s not simply scaremongering, it’s a reality check, and we all need to pay attention to the ticking time bomb.

If you were to measure the distance between Reno and Salt Lake City today, and then measure it again a year from now, the measurements wouldn’t jive. The distance between the two cities is growing by one centimeter each year. That may sound inconsequential, given that the two cities are more than 500 miles apart, but it’s anything but inconsequential. It’s proof that the earth beneath our feet is shifting. And something’s got to—is going to—give. It’s only a matter of time. Tick, tick, tick.

When that subterranean motion tries to spread westward, the enormous block of granite we know as the Sierra Nevada acts as a giant buffer. All that pent-up energy bounces right off the rigid granite and onto fault lines that run from southeast to northwest along the Sierra foothills, just a stone’s throw from Reno, Sparks and Carson City.

“That pull-apart motion between Salt Lake City and Reno is what gives rise to the mountains and the valleys in Nevada,” explains state geologist Jon Price at his office on the University of Nevada-Reno campus. Almost everyone, Price reckons, knows about the danger posed by California’s San Andreas Fault. But, he adds, few people realize that the faults in the Reno-Carson City region have a similar potential to deliver a devastating and deadly punch.

It was on Thursday, Feb. 28—one week after a damaging 6.0 quake struck Wells in northeastern Nevada—that the shaking began in the hills just west of Reno. They’ve continued since.

A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on
The little ones—loosely put, those of less than magnitude 3—felt like “something may have hit the back wall of the house,” says Maizie Pusich, who lives near the epicenter in the Mogul area. “The windows will jiggle a little bit, and you’ll hear the dishes clink.”

The bigger ones, such as the three that shook west Reno within eight minutes of each other on April 15 were a different story.

“We wouldn’t normally have been home,” Pusich says of her and her 7-year-old daughter, who had stayed home from school because she wasn’t feeling well that Tuesday morning.

This car was crushed in the Feb. 21 Wells quake.

“They lasted a few seconds, and more things moved. We didn’t have anything fall. Nothing tipped over. Nobody got hurt. But they were more intense than most of the others.”

Last Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26, were particularly unsettling days, literally. In a 24-hour period, ground sensors detected more than 190 earthquakes in the area between Mogul and Somersett. Seven of them measured 3.3 or higher on the Richter scale. Friday evening’s 4.7 shake was the biggest quake since the seismic activity began in late February.

“People are taking a whole lot more interest,” says Frank Siracusa, chief of the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. “There’s a lot of folks who are [now] much more concerned.”

That means that more and more people are asking the same question: Do all these relatively small earthquakes mean that a large, disastrous quake will soon strike? No matter who is asked, the answer remains the same.

“We just don’t know. There is no way that we can predict that we’re going to have a major earthquake today, tomorrow, six months from now, or six years from now,” Siracusa says. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

Just what does “the worst” mean? In their preparations, officials plan for a magnitude 6.9 quake, the same intensity as the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake, which claimed 57 lives.

Geologist Price uses what’s called “loss estimation modeling” to calculate the impact of a 6.9 tremor in the Reno area. He says the cost of such a quake would be truly devastating.

In human lives lost, the toll would be between 120 and 500, depending on a number of factors, including both the time of year and the time of day when the quake hits. It would heavily damage or destroy an estimated 12,000 buildings. The property loss estimates run between roughly $2 billion and $7 billion.

Price and his team say there’s about a 15 percent chance of such a calamitous quake hitting Reno within the next 30 years. But, if you scale back the size of the quake from 6.9 to 6.0—still a sizeable and costly quake—the probability jumps to between 65 and 70 percent in Reno. The percentages are slightly higher in Carson City.

“The largest risk is to non-reinforced masonry buildings,” says Price. “Brick and mortar, stone and mortar, block and mortar [buildings from] prior to 1972 are potentially of that type. And they do not perform well in earthquakes. … Just [take] a simple drive through downtown Reno or downtown Sparks, and you’ll be able to see some of those buildings.”

It was those non-reinforced brick and mortar buildings that took a beating in the 6.0 quake that hit Wells—along Interstate 80 about 50 miles east of Elko—on Feb. 21. The walls of several downtown buildings—dating from the 19th century—collapsed, and the junior/senior high school suffered heavy damage as well. The losses totaled around $1 million.

Frank Siracusa of Nevada Division of Emergency Management says there’s no way to know if, when or how strong a major earthquake will hit.

Photo By Nick Higman

Had that 6.0 quake hit urban Reno instead of rural Wells, the damage would have been much, much greater.

“We would anticipate between $400 million and $1.4 billion worth of economic loss, so that’s a lot of money,” Price says. He adds that around a thousand buildings would be badly damaged, as would utility infrastructures.

“It’s quite likely we would not have power for an extended period of time,” he warns.

“There is an initial period of time when a lot of folks are pretty much on their own,” warns Siracusa, whose emergency operations center in Carson City is built to withstand even a gigantic, magnitude 8 earthquake. He adds that it will take time before “government can really come together and start to mobilize.” The moral of the story is one every Boy Scout learns: Be prepared.

Shake it up, baby
“We think it is very prudent to be prepared to more or less live on your own for five to seven days,” Price says. That means stockpiling non-perishable food and fresh water, a least a gallon per day per person. Hot water heaters typically hold 30 to 50 gallons of water. Strapping them to the wall will keep them from tipping over, thereby preventing both the loss of the water inside and a possible gas leak.

People should also have a good first aid kit—one with more than just a few Band-Aids and some salve—and an extra week’s worth of prescription medications, too. Flashlights and radios that don’t require electricity are also necessities, as are warm clothing and blankets.

As people in Reno discovered last week, even a relatively-small tremor can shake televisions off mantels and books off their shelves. That’s exactly why Price warns against putting any heavy objects in a place where they could fall and hurt someone.

Price notes that such a tragedy could have easily occurred during the Wells tremor.

“The earthquake knocked a large television set off of a counter [and] right into a baby’s crib,” he explains. The family, fortunately, wasn’t home at the time, but as Price observes, “had the baby been there, there was a good chance it would have died.”

In his office in the Scrugham Engineering/Mines Building, adjacent to the Quad at UNR, Price has taken it upon himself to bolt the bookcases to the wall.

“Those of us who are geologists tend to collect lots of rocks,” he says. “One of the dumbest things we do is put heavy rocks on fireplace mantels and high up on shelves for display. You don’t want to do that, because when an earthquake occurs, that could come falling off of the shelf and hit somebody on the head.

Ken Smith, of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at UNR reiterates what many experts are saying: Predicting an earthquake is nearly impossible with current technology.

Photo By Nick Higman

People who live in earthquake zones should also consider adding earthquake insurance to their homeowners’ policies. That’s exactly what Maizie Pusich did on April 16, the day after the first good shake in Mogul. However, most Northern Nevada insurance companies have put a moratorium on new earthquake policies.

Seismologists are the first to admit they still have loads to learn about earthquakes. That lack of knowledge makes predicting a quake impossible.

“We only have sensors on the surface, and this process is going on several miles down,” says Ken Smith of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory on the UNR campus. “I mean, it’s like looking through binoculars and trying to figure out what’s happening a couple of miles away.”

Smith says the huge number of quakes in the Mogul area is unusual—especially since they have grown in size over time—but that doesn’t necessarily mean a larger quake is imminent.

People get ready
“We don’t know how these things will evolve,” he says. “We have seen, in the past, significant earthquakes the size of the Wells earthquake preceded by a sequence similar to what we’re seeing at Mogul. We’ve also seen sequences like this which haven’t preceded a significant earthquake. …We don’t know what conditions exist in the [earth’s] crust for any of these earthquakes.”

That lack of predictability leaves emergency managers trying to plan for a calamity that could strike at any time: in 12 hours, 12 days or even 12 years.

When Siracusa worked in emergency management in Atlantic County, N.J., he had plenty of warning when a hurricane was bearing down on the Jersey shore. He says there was time to open shelters and stock them with supplies, and time to round up buses to evacuate those people living nearest the coast. He doesn’t have that luxury in earthquake-prone Northern Nevada, where disaster—some day—will hit with absolutely no warning.

“You can’t keep shelters open all the time, just in case there’s an earthquake,” Siracusa says. “You don’t want to cry wolf, either.”

Emergency government officials regularly plan and train for ‘the big one.’ In fact, a large training exercise will be held next month.

The drill—known as “Vigilant Guard"—will be held June 12-19. It will simulate the response to a powerful quake hitting a six-county region encompassing both Reno and Carson City. The exercise will involve local and state agencies, as well as National Guard troops from five Western states plus Guam.

Planning for the disaster drill began several months ago, before both the Wells quake and the series of tremors in the Mogul area. But, given the recent seismic activity, the exercise now has added relevancy—and maybe even urgency. After all, the clock is ticking, and to many ears, the ticking seems to be getting louder.

“We have to prepare for the worst,” Siracusa reiterates. “All we can do is prepare.”

But, as the emergency workers and the scientists all know, they can’t do all the preparations themselves. People have to be ready to fend for themselves.

The experts hope that the frightening projections will mobilize ordinary folks to get ready.

“Nevada people understand odds,” Jon Price, the state geologist, says. “It’s gonna happen sooner or later.”