The earthquake hazard here may be greater than you think. And planning for it is less than you'd expect.

"That's kind of a wink of the eye in geologic time," says Hoffman. "There are lots of faults in the area, and it might (indicate) the potential for earthquakes in the future. In the past, I don't think they were even considered. It's just the way people thought at that time. They didn't think there was a problem with earthquakes in the Midwest. It takes studies of lots of these kinds of places and features and compiling all the data and analyzing it together to get the whole picture. We just kind of have one piece of the puzzle with this spot. We're the primary ones that have even looked here. Then there's the rest of the state that hasn't been looked at."

Hoffman's tectonic revelation has garnered no interest, though, outside the scientific community. More significantly, there are no plans to investigate his findings further. "Because of funding considerations, we had to stop doing this basic field research," he says. "We don't have the time or the people to do it, and it's an expensive type of activity."

In the preface to its 1997 report, the Missouri Seismic Safety Commission warned that the threat of an earthquake should not be ignored. The commission, established by the state Legislature in 1993, comprises 15 members appointed by the governor, including volunteers from the architectural and engineering professions. The group, which holds no statutory authority, advises and makes recommendations to the state government. But to date, few resources have been allocated to carry out the commission's suggestions.

State geologist David Hoffman in the Benton Hills, where he has investigated seismic activity.
Jennifer Silverberg
State geologist David Hoffman in the Benton Hills, where he has investigated seismic activity.

The Missouri DNR and SEMA are the two agencies that deal with earthquake-related issues in the state. One percent of the DNR's Division of Geology and Land Survey annual budget -- a mere $71,000 -- is devoted to the subject. No field research is now being conducted by the agency, and Hoffman is the only full-time employee assigned to earthquake duties.

As for SEMA, that agency receives only about $65,000 a year for earthquake preparedness from the state. By comparison, Gov. Mel Carnahan's annual salary is $112,755.

And even that feeble effort by SEMA may be of dubious value. For example, the Center for Earthquake Studies at Southeast Missouri State University doesn't really study anything. The staff is made up of two students who are employed part-time through the school's work-study program. They answer the phone when a tremor shakes the region. In addition to that courtesy service, the center publishes brochures and gives occasional seminars at elementary schools.

SEMA also gets about $65,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The vast majority of federal earthquake assistance goes for programs on the West Coast, including more than half of the $4 million in FEMA dollars allocated to the states. "California gets the main meal and we get the table scraps," says Johnston, the University of Memphis scientist.

In the city, the entire budget of the St. Louis Emergency Management Agency has remained at $90,000, all of which comes from FEMA. That total goes toward planning not only for earthquakes but for every other imaginable disaster. "We survive a lot on the goodwill of the people that we work with," says Ken Walk, the spokesman for the city agency. "We have police officers who teach classes for us and help us prepare the plans that we have. We work real closely with the fire department. We save a lot of money in that respect. Is more money the answer all the time?" asks Walk. "Not always. Sometimes it's a matter of focus."

If that be the case, myopia afflicts St. Louis County, where emergency planners must try to coordinate preparedness within a jurisdictional quagmire that includes 91 municipalities and nearly a million people. "The county is an absolute nightmare," says one public official who requests anonymity. "Those guys are scrambling all the time. They do a relatively good job, but it's like an extended family that doesn't really get along."

The St. Louis County Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the county police department, has a 12-member staff and a budget of $600,000 (including $150,000 from FEMA) to cover the full gamut of emergencies -- not just earthquakes. This year's allocation -- approximately 60 cents per person -- is expected to ensure the safety of a 524-square-mile area that contains more than 400,000 households, or 20 percent of the state's population. In other words, the annual per capita appropriation for emergency management in St. Louis County doesn't even equal half the fare for a single ride on a Bi-State bus.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, a group of professional volunteers will be called upon to inspect buildings. The program, which is coordinated by SEMA, enlists the help of architects and engineers. But in the absence of a statewide building code and other enforcement mechanisms, the state emergency officials have no regulatory authority to enforce recommendations before a disaster strikes. Instead, Gray of SEMA relies on what he calls the "jawbone" method of persuasion. "You try to reason with people that they should be doing the right things by including seismic design in their new buildings," he says.

The state emergency-management official would like to see the state budget increased for earthquake readiness, but he also realizes that the problem spans political boundaries. Gray notes that FEMA has cut back the funding of the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium in Memphis, which is charged with coordinating preparations for disaster relief in the seven-state region. A spokesman for that agency says its budget has been cut by 80 percent in the last two years. The reduction reduces the agency's budget to about $350,000 a year.

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