Earth moves under Seattle's feet

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

This week's earthquake in the Pacific Northwest put a big scare into area residents, especially in Seattle. Fifteen to 45 seconds of rolling, undulating earth is enough to make anyone weak in the knees.

A 6.8 magnitude temblor is large enough to be called major, and it certainly wreaked some havoc there and around the region. By the time you read this, it might be apparent that life was lost, along with injuries and what initially seems to be a fair amount of damage to buildings and property.

Mark well, no loss of life can be considered minor. But it might be worth noting that Seattle's experience was markedly different from that of other cities and regions where earthquakes have hit around the world.

Little more than a month ago, remember, a devastating quake struck India, smashing buildings and killing tens of thousands of people. And on the same day that Seattle was hit this week, El Salvador experienced the latest in a series of serious quakes that so far have killed well over a thousand and injured thousands more.

Earthquakes in other countries have even shown themselves capable of affecting international relations and economies. Turkey's massive earthquake of 1999 and its aftershocks killed more than 15,000 people. The help and sympathy that came from Greece for a time soothed tense relations between the nations, and the extent of the physical damage forced Turkey to borrow billions of dollars.

This is what happens when the earth moves in places that do not have the economic wherewithal to prepare for the worst.

In the United States and other First World countries, we are blessed with the resources and know-how to build to stringent earthquake codes. The fruits of this planning could be seen in the aftermath of the Seattle quake, as well as in the wake of other recent major earthquakes along America's very active West Coast faults. Even the 1989 California quake, in which there was loss of life and a dramatic, televised interruption of the World Series, primarily damaged those dwellings constructed before the building codes got tougher.

You don't have to work in the news very long before you realize that when disasters strike abroad, they tend to claim many, many more lives then they do here at home. Across the American continent, we have the world's worst assortment of severe weather. If this surprises you, it's probably because we, for all our tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, are generally -- not always, but generally -- spared the horrific death tolls we see so often in Third World countries.

That said, we might also take note that the American West, though the region best prepared for earthquakes, is not the only place in our country where earthquakes can and do strike. Major population centers in the East also lie over fault lines. Just a few weeks ago, some New York City residents were awakened by a small earthquake. In Manhattan, such things seem a harmless novelty, but the incident prompted reminders from scientists that New York could -- emphasis on could -- be struck by a major earthquake, either tomorrow or in a thousand years. The thought of all those skyscrapers tumbling like dominoes is a sobering vision indeed.

Such is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and it seems fair to say that some Seattle citizens might be plagued by bad dreams in the days and weeks ahead. In the world's developing nations, the nightmares are often all too real. Something to remember, and yet another reason to give thanks for the prosperity we know in the United States.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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