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Preparing for the unexpected with David Applegate

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Imagine you're at work; busy responding to e-mail after e-mail, when you notice that morning cup of coffee on your desk starting to wobble just slightly. Perplexed, you look up and suddenly books are falling from the shelves and the room is violently shaking. Earthquake! You race for cover, praying the building doesn't fall in around you and your co-workers.

For many people along the Western coast of the United States and Alaska this scenario is something they've actually lived through. Earthquakes are common and people know how to react — even children are taught how to "drop, cover, and hold" in school. But for the rest of the country, the threat of a substantial earthquake is fairly remote and little to no preparedness is taught. So when a magnitude 5.8 quake centered near Mineral, Virginia, struck much of the Eastern U.S. at 1:51 p.m. ET on August 23, 2011, many people were understandably caught off guard.

The 5.8 quake should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country, says David Applegate. Applegate stresses that everyone in the U.S. should be familiar with earthquakes and know what to do in case one occurs because there is significant risk in 39 U.S. states.

Applegate is a geologist with United States Geological Survey (USGS). He has spent his career communicating to the public and to policy makers that earthquake dangers are real, a passion he found after a AAAS fellowship brought him to the policy world. He wants to teach the public how to protect themselves from natural hazards; so that when they strike "we will all be ready," he says.

As the USGS's Associate Director of Natural Hazards, Applegate is currently busy trying to raise awareness about earthquake dangers in the Central U.S. Large earthquakes have hit this region before, and likely will again.

The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 were a series of powerful magnitude 7.0 quakes (magnitude estimates are based on settler reports, because there were no seismographs in that region at the time) that shook Arkansas and Missouri. Luckily these areas were still sparsely populated in the nineteenth century, so death tolls were low. But the damage was severe. Trees were twisted and uprooted, large rifts were created in the ground, and the quake triggered large waves down the Mississippi river, causing flooding. Some eyewitness reports say the river actually ran backwards, but scientists today think this was more of an illusion caused by the large waves, or seiches, from the seismographic activity.

The USGS in partnership with FEMA and state emergency management agencies has started a program called the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, which teaches people about the New Madrid quakes, and what to do if a similar earthquake would hit today. It is based on an annual event that started in California, in which millions of people participate. Here's how it works — on a planned day at a specific minute workers crawl under their desks, school children "take cover" and everyone pretends that the earth is moving.

By performing the drill people learn how to stay safe and hopefully won't panic when a real quake hits, says Applegate.

Additionally, the ShakeOut teaches precautions that people should take before an earthquake in order to minimize damage.

Falling books, light fixtures, breaking TVs and anything that will move or fall if the ground shakes can hurt people and cause significant damage. 

Applegate secured a number of items in his own home to protect them from his rambunctious children, for example his TV is strapped to its stand and books are secured on shelves. And he intends to keep them secured even when his children are grown. These small measures, along with an annual drill, according to Applegate, can help people prepare in the unlikely event of a major quake.


Events like the ShakeUp drills are not just for the public, they also help emergency managers know what they might have to deal with after a natural hazard strikes. The USGS and its partners create scenarios that not only cover what the initial hazard would be like, but also what dangers could arise afterward. For example, would the power go out, would there be fires or floods, would roads and bridges still be usable? Risks that utility companies, emergency responders, and even school districts will need to know to protect the public.

Applegate emphasizes that we need to think about natural hazards while we are safe, because we can't predict when they could hit. "The biggest challenges are with hazards that only come infrequently," he says. For example, the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti in 2010 happened in a country that hadn't had a large earthquake in hundreds of years.

By reminding people that the danger is real, through activities like the annual ShakeOut events, he hopes to encourage communities to strengthen building codes and take other steps that will mitigate the damage from a hazard when it hits.

Applegate stresses the need for long term planning for natural hazards. Infrequent perils can cause just as much damage as frequent hazards, and if we don't plan for both our national resilience could be compromised, he warns. 

And the USGS doesn't just focus on earthquake preparedness; they are also instrumental in helping other organizations protect the public from tsunamis and magnetic storms. "Our stream gauges are used by NOAA to issue flood watches and warnings. Our seismic networks feed data not only to our National Earthquake Information Center for reporting on the earthquake. But then that data also goes straight to NOAA's tsunami warning centers so they can issue tsunami watches and warnings as needed," he explained.

Applegate further stresses a need for "translators" in government, people who can communicate technical data into understandable information that policy makers and the public can act on. He began his career as a AAAS and American Geophysical Union Fellow working in Congress after completing his Ph.D. He found a real passion working as a mediator between science and policy makers, and hasn't wanted to leave the beltway since then.

"One of the great capabilities that scientists can bring to bear is simply their understanding of how the Earth operates and why it behaves the way it does," says Applegate. 

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"It was probably the most widely felt earthquake in U.S. history" says AAAS member Dave Applegate about the magnitude 5.8 quake that rattled the Eastern U.S. on August 23, 2011. (Photo: David Applegate)
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