For a city that seems to move at the speed of light, being late is never a good thing. That’s true for budget agreements, that’s true for commuter trains, and as it turns out, it’s probably true for earthquakes as well.
We tend to think of seismic activity as a West Coast problem. Friday demonstrated all too well what a magnitude-8.2 earthquake can do to Mexico and Central America; many of us remember the World Series quake that rocked the San Francisco area in 1989. But New York, which is actually riddled with faults, has a long history of earthquakes: On average, the region has witnessed a moderate quake (about a 5.0 on the Richter scale) every hundred years. The last one was in 1884. Seismologists say we can expect the next one any day now.
Admittedly, a moderate quake isn’t going to cause Hollywood-level destruction, nor is it going to raze Manhattan. But it is going to do plenty of damage: upwards of $39 billion in losses and over 30 million tons of debris. That rubble, caused largely by crumbled brick and stone buildings, is going to clog already congested roads, making it impossible for first responders and public transportation to move about the city.
It may be equally difficult to travel below ground in some cases. Take the Steinway Tunnel, a 1.3-mile cast-iron tube that runs deep below the East River. The 7 train passes through it every 20 minutes, often packed with commuters or, this time of year, Mets fans. Construction on the tunnel began around the time of the last earthquake, long before seismic codes or even modern engineering practices had been codified. As a result, there are big craters and gaps where the tunnel lining isn’t actually in contact with the earth around it. In the event of a quake, that’s going to cause the tunnel to rattle around. And because the tunnel runs through both the soft mud of the riverbed and the hard bedrock on either side, different segments are going to rattle around at different speeds and frequencies. That’s doubly bad news for cast iron that was never in very good shape to begin with.
There are more than a dozen tunnels like the Steinway connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and Long Island. They’re all at risk of serious damage in the event of a quake. Just how much of a risk we can’t say, because little has been done to evaluate their seismic soundness. Vince Tirolo, a longtime engineer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority who now serves as a private consultant and adjunct professor at Columbia University, has been sounding the alarm about these tunnels for years. He says he hasn’t received much of a response from the city. As research for my book, “Quakeland,” I contacted the MTA to ask for an interview with the person handling their emergency management and seismic assessment. I wanted to know why more wasn’t being done to fix these beleaguered tunnels or to assess their risk in the event of an earthquake. They told me they couldn’t accommodate my request. I asked why. Nine months later, I’m still waiting for a response.
That doesn’t look good, particularly following the summer of hell, a season marked by delays, derailments and the revelation that both the MTA and the Port Authority have redirected monies toward ski resorts and ferry tickets, rather than shoring up tunnel infrastructure.
It’s doubly concerning given that those faults that crisscross Manhattan are not the only ones capable of seismic activity. Geologists now believe that the Ramapo Fault, which spans 185 miles from the Hudson Highlands through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, may be capable of a much stronger earthquake — maybe even one as strong as a 7.0.
That kind of quake could easily do more damage to the city proper than 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy. And given the fault’s proximity to Indian Point Energy Center, Entergy’s beleaguered nuclear power plant in Westchester County, crumpled brownstones and inactive subway tunnels may be the least of our concerns.
A few years ago, the United States Geological Survey conducted a seismic-risk assessment of all nuclear power plants. Excluding a few plants on the West Coast, Indian Point was deemed the plant with the greatest risk of core damage as a result of seismic activity, a dubious distinction for sure. After the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission required all US plants to undergo an extensive seismic evaluation, with an eye toward instituting additional safeguards and retrofits. Entergy was to submit its evaluation of Indian Point this year. Not only has it failed to do so, but it has made a formal request of the NRC that this requirement be waived altogether, citing the closure of the plant in 2021 as justification for this waiver.
Just how well the plant would perform in an earthquake remains a subject of debate among scientists and engineers. Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, thinks even a 5.0 quake would raise safety concerns at the plant. A 7.0, he says, could easily do damage to the domes containing the reactors. Meanwhile, the siting of a large natural-gas pipeline near the plant has raised concerns with some nuclear insiders, who predict an explosion could create a Fukushima-like event there. Gas pipelines aren’t held to the same seismic standards as power plants, and they aren’t required to survive a seismic event. They also come with some of the same vulnerabilities seen in tunnels like the Steinway. Were this pipeline to rupture in an earthquake, it could cause a meltdown easily capable of billions of dollars in damage and the evacuation of millions of people.
We don’t have to be left with these doomsday scenarios. While earthquakes will also remain the most powerful and least understood natural disasters, investing in infrastructure and emergency plans can make their eventuality a lot less costly, both in terms of human life and the national economy. For that to happen, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio will need to find a way to set aside their differences and agree on a funding package that shores up New York’s most vulnerable tubes and tunnels. The state will need to take a hard look at the real risk of pipelines like the one to be completed near Indian Point. And Congress, now back from its summer recess, will need to find a way to pass a budget that includes real investment in our national infrastructure.
These are matters that can’t wait. New York’s next earthquake may be late, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be pulling into the station soon.
NYC FAULT FACTS
- The last observable NYC quake happened on Oct. 27, 2001, along the 125th Street Fault, which runs all the way across Central Park and underneath Long Island City. Its epicenter hit around 55th and Eighth — directly beneath the first Original Soupman restaurant. The rumbling unnerved a city still reeling from the 9/11 attacks but did not cause any real damage.
- The most recent 5.0-magnitude quake in NYC occurred in August 1884. Centered off Queens’ Rockaway Beach, it was felt over 70,000 square miles, opening enormous crevices near the Brooklyn reservoir, rocking the Brooklyn Bridge and knocking down chimneys and cracking walls as far away as Pennsylvania.
- New York state has witnessed 200 quakes of magnitude 2.0 or higher since Western settlers arrived, making it the third-most seismically active state east of Mississippi (after Tennessee and South Carolina).
- On any given day, 1,000 or so earthquakes occur across the globe. Around 500,000 earthquakes hit the world each year, but only about 100 actually cause damage.
- New York City has 6,000 unreinforced masonry buildings that would collapse in a 7.0 quake.
Kathryn Miles is the author of “Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake” (Penguin), out now.
Map: Merguerian, Charles, 2015b, Review of New York City bedrock with a focus on brittle structures; p. 17-67 in Herman, G. C. and Macaoay Ferguson, S., eds., Geological Association of New Jersey Guidebook, Neotectonics of the New York Recess, 32nd Annual Conference and Field Trip, Lafayette College, Easton, PA, 214 p.