How Safe Is California? Earthquakes In Mexico And Chile Raise Questions About Preparedness

The U.S. and Japan are seen as the leaders in earthquake preparedness.

But a spike in seismic activity the past few years has even tiny countries like Nicaragua busy prepping for the worst.

Nicaragua may be the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti, but it is also one of the best prepared to deal with earthquakes – before and after they happen.

“Nicaragua is really pro-active in monitoring earthquake activity,” John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington, told Fox News Latino. “They have a really good seismologist and are prepared for the eventuality of a major earthquake.”

Nicaragua’s recent quakes – the Central American nation was hit by three earthquakes last week – along with a magnitude 8.2 quake in northern Chile and magnitude 5.1 tremor that shook southern California in March, have capped off a busy decade of seismic activity. Another powerful quake shook Mexico City on Friday, and seismologists calculated the magnitude at 7.5.

That activity has scientists closely examining movements of the world’s fault lines and lawmakers in nations from South America to Asia to the United States wondering how prepared they are for a major shake.

“California is pretty safe, and Alaska is doing pretty well,” said Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). “Chile and Japan, however, are probably the best prepared nations in terms of how their buildings are constructed and how they respond to an earthquake.”

The U.S. Congress created the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) in 1977 with the aim of helping to reduce the impact of temblors and mitigate the damage caused by them.

Today, the program combines four agencies – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the USGS – and its main goal is to research and develop technology that tracks earthquakes to speed up warning times and reduce damage.

Cities and countries ramp up preparation after a major earthquake. But what worries many critics and U.S. lawmakers – including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – is that once big events have passed from recent memory, such as the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, people then “ignore high-consequence, low-probability events,” Dennis Mileti, a professor emeritus of sociology with the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Retro Report.

And even though earthquakes in the U.S. aren’t as frequent as those in Chile and Japan, states like Alaska, California and Washington are also at great risk for a major seismic event. California, which averages 27 minor quakes a day and suffered a 5.1 earthquake in March, is particularly vulnerable given the proximity of major cities to the coastline.

“There is a lot of movement going on there," Blakeman said. “Luckily California is pretty well prepared.”

Nicaragua Readies For ‘The Big One’

Nicaragua learned a hard lesson in 1972, when a magnitude 6.2 earthquake devastated the capital of Managua and left between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead.

Following three recent quakes in the Central American nation, President Daniel Ortega renewed preparation efforts in the country. He began building a field hospital, urged people to donate blood to the Red Cross, asked them to sleep outside susceptible buildings and moved elderly Nicaraguans into shelters.

With fears that the fault underneath has been reactivated, officials from the government agency in charge of disaster preparedness, Sinapred, told the BBC it was getting ready for a "catastrophe of major proportions."

Earthquakes occur when the large tectonic plates that make up the earth’s top layer move and collide, which, besides forming mountains and volcanoes, cause roughly 4,000 – mostly minor – earthquakes a day.

Both Chile and Japan sit on volatile spots along the “Ring of Fire” – a circum-Pacific seismic belt where 81 percent of the world’s worst earthquakes occur – and both have suffered widespread devastation in the last decade from massive quakes.

In 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck just south of Chile’s capital of Santiago, leaving 525 dead and costing the Chilean government between $15 and $30 billion. Japan’s 2011 earthquake and the tsunami that followed killed 15,885 people and caused a massive environmental disaster when three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant melted down.

“Chile is an earthquake-prone country, and despite the impact of one of the most powerful quakes to hit in decades, preparedness measures and strict new building construction codes saved lives,” the Red Cross said in a press report a year after the 2010 quake.

In 1972, the country instituted a strict seismic code mandating that all high‐risk buildings be made from seismically-sound materials such as steel and reinforced concrete. Chile’s coastal population also has a good understanding of the need to evacuate lower zones, close to the beach, and the country’s energy network can shut down automatically in the event of a major earthquake.

"When you look at the architecture in Chile, you see buildings that have damage, but not the complete pancaking that you've got in Haiti," said Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps people rebuild after disasters, told the Associated Press. Earlier in 2010, a magnitude 7.0 quake destroyed much of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed more than 300,000, according to the USGS.

Along with such preemptive measures, the South American nation adhered to a strict recovery effort involving immediate emergency response, a reconstruction plan and a long-term study looking into how to improve earthquake safety. Chile’s goals included replacing and improving buildings and infrastructure and putting in place an early warning system – a move that helped people in the coastal city of Iquique evacuate before this month's earthquake hit.

Of course, natural disasters have ways of completely bypassing all good intentions and planning. The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami proved that vividly.

With the exception of maybe only Chile, no country is better prepared for an earthquake than Japan – as it literally sits atop one long seismic zone and has suffered devastating quakes for centuries. Children are taught earthquake safety from a young age, skyscrapers are built to sway but not fall during a temblor and the government has a series of quick response measures in place.

But the tsunami that accompanied the 2011 earthquake destroyed the coast of the Miyagi Prefecture on Japan’s northern island and very nearly caused a nuclear meltdown.

The University of Washington seismologist Vidale said that parts of China were particularly in peril and would be ruined by a massive earthquake. Thousands could be killed if a quake hit a city that hasn’t yet adapted earthquake-resistant architecture, even in places that don't normally experience much seismic activity. In New York City, for instance, a fault line runs down 125th St. through Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood.

“In places that don’t have earthquakes a lot and there isn’t much of a risk of one, people may decide not implement rules in building codes,” Vidale said. “We all make that decision.”

Chile and Los Angeles both got off relatively unscathed this year – as did Nicaragua – but scientists and lawmakers both know that it's only a matter of time before a quake that thwarts even the best-laid plans comes up. A “seismic gap” has built up between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates in Chile, and California has been expecting a major resettlement along the San Adreas fault for years.

“It could happen tomorrow, or in 50 years,” said Mark Simons, a professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology, told the Financial Times about Chile.

For governments from California to Chile, it’s just a matter of waiting. And preparing.