Ecker turns serious on quakes

February 28, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker jokingly told the Chamber of Commerce last month that he was responsible for the score of small earthquakes that occurred in the county last year.

"It took about 27 months" to shake things up with his new policies, but "since March 1993 . . . we have had 21 earthquakes," he told chamber members.

He is joking no longer. Since giving his Jan. 13 State of the County speech, Mr. Ecker has renewed his request for a matching $25,000 state grant to build a $50,000 station to monitor earthquakes in Howard County and is seeking financial help from the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program.

Mr. Ecker also is seeking advice from Leonardo Seeber, a seismologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Mr. Seeber was a member of the Lamont-Doherty team that studied Howard's earthquakes last spring.

It was not just the Los Angeles earthquake, which occurred four days after Mr. Ecker's speech to the chamber, that triggered his concern. It was Mr. Seeber's Jan. 23 article in the Perspective section of The Sun.

Although Mr. Seeber's bottom line was reassuring -- "Have fun with your small earthquakes, but also take steps to reduce your risk" -- the context for that bottom line was chilling.

Mr. Seeber compared Howard County's small quakes to "a burst of unprecedented seismicity" in central India a year before the Sept. 30, 1993, earthquake that left 10,000 people dead.

The central India quake had a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale -- slightly less than the magnitude of the one in Los Angeles -- but it occurred in a "stable continent" that had no evidence of previous faulting in 65 million-year-old rocks.

"All stable continents, including North America, offer examples of large earthquakes centered in areas with little historic seismicity and with no evidence of recent geologic deformation," Mr. Seeber wrote.

Mr. Ecker said he had felt "reasonably secure" about Howard Coun

ty's small earthquakes until he read Dr. Seeber's article.

"It got me concerned again," Mr. Ecker said. "I thought we had done everything. I am still waiting to hear from him about what we should do that we haven't done."

Geologic conditions in Howard County are similar to those in the epicentral area in central India and in southeastern Pennsylvania, where a "swarm of small earthquakes" has occurred, Mr. Seeber said.

"Such signals would not 'predict' a large earthquake . . . yet, this kind of signal does raise temporarily the probability of a large earthquake," Mr. Seeber wrote.

"Relatively few small earthquakes have characterized the swarm in Howard County, but an event Nov. 17 suggests that the sequence is continuing," Mr. Seeber said.

A large destructive earthquake is still "very unlikely" in Howard, he said, but the chance of such an earthquake is "probably substantially higher after the onset of the Columbia sequence than before it."

County government should demand its "fair share of the benefits from the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program," Mr. Seeber said.

He said he hopes program officials will "take notice that the largest earthquake disaster in India during the last 50 years occurred in the stable continental part of that country . . . where the hazard was estimated to be the lowest."

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