Ecker's Earthquake Anxiety

March 08, 1994

While everyone else in the Baltimore-Washington region has been worrying about snow and ice, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has had earthquakes on his mind.

It seems Mr. Ecker remains shaken by the series of tremors that hit the Columbia area last year, and more recently by an article in The Sun's Perspective section in which a Columbia University seismologist wrote that the area could yet experience a major quake.

In his Jan. 23 Perspective article, Leonardo Seeber noted similarities between Howard County and an area of central India that was hit by a big quake last September in which 10,000 people died. Mr. Ecker said the column "got me concerned VTC again," just after he had grown fairly confident that the eastern part of the county wasn't about to turn into the California of the East. Now he's proposing that an earthquake monitoring system be installed in the county, with the local, state and federal governments as possible funding sources.

Steady, Mr. Ecker.

Last year's mini-quakes certainly alarmed a lot of people. It is even possible they could recur. It's just as likely, though, that further quakes -- big or small -- might never happen again, given that Howard doesn't sit on a large fault line -- or anywhere near one. Moreover, earthquakes can't be predicted. Scientists have developed copious data about California's seismic fault lines, but still can't forecast when another quake might hit the Golden State, or anywhere else.

If Mr. Ecker hopes that a monitoring system could serve as a predictor of earthquakes, he must realize that such a device does not exist. If he wants to increase the amount of specific information on quake activity in the area, that's another matter.

But before he acts to spend one public dollar on a monitoring system, Mr. Ecker should decide exactly what he wants out of it. He should then consult with various earthquake experts and structural engineers, including Mr. Seeber, to determine how necessary and feasible the plan might be. A key point for the executive to bear in mind is that the costs of the system would not end with its installation; there would be the continuing expense of maintaining it.

Should Howard County monitor its earthquake activity? Maybe. However, a decision by officials should not be made until they've conducted a thorough, level-headed study of the issue.

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