Earthquake hits Wash DC area; talking about natural disaster risk

A 5.8 earthquake hit the Washington (DC) area, centered about 50 miles southwest but felt as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Boston. No serious damage appears to have been done.

Normally we wouldn’t remark on this, but as it happens, just yesterday we were talking with a Seattle-area person with direct interest in where Boeing builds assembly sites. We naturally talked about Boeing’s 787 site in Charleston (SC) and the bombshell dropped by CEO Jim McNerney that Renton (WA) can’t assume it will be where the 737RE will be built (we can’t yet bring ourselves to call this thing the NE737). Among the considerations is natural disaster risk.

The Seattle area has a lot of earthquake fault lines and the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, so-called because that’s where it was centered at the south end of Puget Sound, caused damage at Renton and some Boeing buildings were red-tagged.

Diversifying the assembly sites has merit, though choosing Charleston (or North Carolina or Alabama), in a hurricane zone, doesn’t seem to make much sense, either. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 made landfall at Charleston and caused billions of dollars of damage and some interesting photos.

The person we were talking to remarked that the New York Times a few months back published maps of the highest and least risk areas in the US. As it turns out, all things considered, the Seattle area is one of the lowest risk in the Us (though high for earthquake potential) and the entire East Coast–including Charleston–rates higher in the risk factor than does Washington State.

Of particular note, the NYT map shows Charleston in the same color of high risk for earthquakes at Seattle.

11 Comments on “Earthquake hits Wash DC area; talking about natural disaster risk

  1. RE earthquake/floods/hurricanes/himacanes, etc.

    IMHO- one of the most desirable- low risk areas would be moses lake
    what with airfield, some water transport available not too far away via columbia river, rail from the midwest and everett-renton area, and during the buildup phase, not unreasonable travel expenses for the seattle area experienced workforce, some of whom would be willingm to move on a permanent basis. No time differences for engineering and manufacturing coordination, etc.

  2. Building earthquake-proof isn’t that hard, at least when we talk about 7ish on the Richter scale. Needs some concrete and more steel than usual. Problem is infrastructure, even if the factory building is unhurt, the worker’s homes and general power supply are probably not.

    5.9 is nothing, in Japan they laugh about it. But if the infrastructure is unprepared …

  3. I agree, most major metropolitian areas of the US has something. I live in Fort Worth, and we have both LM and Bell here, as well as DFW Airport. DFW, with all of its roadway and taxiway bridges would be devistated in an earthquake (yes we have them, too but usually much smaller than other places). I grew up in Boston and there we had hurricanes and blizzards. There is a huge fault (sorry, I forgot the name) off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia that if it has an earthquake could kill hundreds of thousands and create a huge Tsunami. The Northwest US also has a number of active volcanos. California is another place with earthquake problems, and there is a lot of aviation manufactuers there, too.

    But none of these events happen every year, or even every ten or 20 years.

    The EU is not immune from natural disasters. They have many active volcanos, mostly in Italy, and have had devistating floods as recently as the North Sea Flood of 1953 that effected England, Belgium, and The Netherlands. Huge floods have also hit France and German in more recent years. Europe has also had tornados, wildfires, huge blizzards, and other natural disasters. But Europe’s biggest disasters are man made. Europe has had centuries of huge and costly wars, including two world wars in the last century, and wars recently in Kosovo. Will there ever be a major war in Europe again? Who knows? But they don’t have a very good track record. In contrast, there have been 3 major wars on US soil since we became an independent country, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the US Civil War. Since the US declaired its independance (4 July 1776), Europe has had the French Reveloution, 9 Nepoleonic Wars, a few Ottoman Wars, WWI, WWII, Spainish Civil War, the War in Kosovo, and others I have forgotten about.

    The March 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami that devistated Northern Japan set back much of the automoblie industry, not to mention their nuclear power plant industry. Most of their aviation industry was spared…..this time. China is no better than anyplace else for any industry and may be an even worse location than most.

    There is also something called ‘super volcanos’ (Yellowstone National Park has one, so does Napels, Italy) which if they erupt could cause a global disaster that could nearly wipe out all human life.

    So Boeing is vunable to natural disasters, but so is Airbus and just about every other industry. I have always said that no matter where you choose to live, everyplace has something that can kill you or ruin your way of life.

    No matter where you build your plant to manufacture everything from widgets to airplanes and ships, these occasional natural disaters are just the cost of doing business.

  4. It is interesting to see the EQ in the Atlantic. The US went in 2000 for a new national building code the International Building Code (some variation on adopting, CA didn’t adopt until ’09). It has required the East Coast to design for Earthquakes, although pretty small. A lot of whining – why do we need to design for earthquakes! We don’t have them. Now they will probably be quiet. A 5.8 is large enough that the next code will up the forces on the east coast.

    The USGS has a cool site – Google Seismic Hazard zipcode and you will find a site that will give you the seismic values for your zip code. Actually, it uses GPS of the post office, but actual forces can be provided for each location. It measures the distance from the known faults and calculates the max acceleration from each fault. I’m 20 miles from Seattle and we are 20% lower than them. Interesting tidbit, Seattle is well higher than San Diego for earthquakes.

    A lot of Seattle industrial areas are on fill over old delta mud, very bad in a seismic event. Boeing Field, Renton, and the Auburn valley are squishy, Everett is on hard ground. The Southcenter area requires piles over 100 feet in length for strip mall type of buildings.

    For risk diversity, I would think that no more than 25% of any product stream should rely in a given area – all parts! That is, a major event at a location should not stop over 25% of the total company / supplier production. That would mean the new 737RS when it comes should be built at two sites, all totally away from a production standpoint from the Puget Sound. It also means the next widebody should also be elsewhere.

    That way, the company survives the disaster, otherwise it could be just sunk.

  5. The whole earthquake thing is a big red herring. Just another in a long line of them that this new Boeing seems to throw out there these days.

  6. Risk is everywhere, but it still seems there is some logic in diversifying that risk. I understand why a company the size of Boeing would not want to have all its eggs in one basket. The question is where to put the other baskets.

    • To answer your question, Lou, is they should put those new baskets where ever they time they can get the most ROI from. As I said, it is all part of the costs of doing business.

  7. Airbus built an A-320 FAL in China. I am quite sure Airbus understands China suffers from a lot of different natural disasters on a fairly regular bases. My guess is that took that into consideration as they were making the decision of where to put that FAL.

    Boeing may not have considered earthquakes when the decided on their new plant in SC, as it has been some 70 years since the last “big” east coast earthquake (but that was still less than a 6.0). They probibly did consider things like hurricanes, tornados, hail, and other acts of God.

    • Nope, they put the factory where the Chinese government told them to put the factory. Sure they said something about “evaluating” sites, but the answer was Tianjin before they even started. The government wanted to boost Tianjin, and it’s not a coincidence that Wen Jiabao is from Tianjin.

  8. > As it turns out, all things considered, the Seattle area is one of
    > the lowest risk in the Us (though high for earthquake potential)

    Probability of an eruption of Mt. Rainier has to be taken into account as well however. The per-year probability is not clear from the historical record, but it has been a long time since the last major event.


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