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Mary Manning
 

Quake felt in Vegas; Nevada ranks No. 3 in quake hazards

30 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Nevada residents who think they've escaped California's earthquakes, like Tuesday's 5.4-magnitude quake 28 miles east of Los Angeles, think again: Nevada ranks third among all states in earthquake hazards, behind Alaska and California.

That ranking is based on the average magnitude of earthquakes that occur each year, according to a report issued by UNR's Nevada Seismological Laboratory.

From his 10th floor office, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he felt the Tuesday earthquake that was centered in Chino Hills. Although it unsettled the mayor, Goodman spokesman Jace Radke said the temblor didn't knock any of his photos or memorabilia from walls or shelves at City Hall, which is at Las Vegas Boulevard North and Stewart Avenue.

The quake also was felt on the upper floors of the 17-story Regional Justice Center, south of Fremont Street on Fourth Street.

The security control room at the center was flooded with calls but there were no reports of damage.

Although the epicenter of Tuesday's earthquake was in California, researchers said a quake originating from Nevada could have devastating effects on the region.

Nevada registered 19 significant earthquakes between 1968 and 1994, and a repeat of those same quakes -- which generated a total of $17 million in damages at the time -- would cause $1.57 billion in damage today because of the state's growth, the Nevada Earthquake Safety Council said.

Two earthquake safety council members, state geologist Jon Price and Jim O'Donnell, both seismologists, estimated damages from two different quake scenarios for Goodman and his staff.

"The results were astounding," O'Donnell said of the 2003 report.

If a 5.9-magnitude temblor struck the Frenchman Mountain fault east of Las Vegas, economic losses could range between $2.2 billion and $8.9 billion. Of that total, $1.2 to $4.7 billion is estimated to come from damaged buildings, up to $1.3 billion from building contents lost and up to $2.9 billion in business losses.

Between 80 and 300 people could die, another 300 to 1,200 people would need hospital beds and 3,000 to 12,000 would need public shelter, according to the report.

At least 655 buildings would be destroyed and another 4,000 to 17,000 would have major damage, O'Donnell and Price said.

When they estimated damages from a 6.6-magnitude quake on the same mountain, the price tag jumped to between $4.4 billion and $17.7 billion in economic losses, 30,000 buildings damaged and 10,000 to 40,000 people displaced.

UNLV scientists discovered that the faults under Las Vegas could produce a 7-magnitude earthquake every 1,000 to 10,000 years. Yet the ability to predict the precise moment an earthquake will strike is impossible, scientists said.

An earthquake in the valley itself is not the only threat posed by faults in the western United States. A fault system many scientists believe to be more active than those in Nevada spans California's Death Valley, 150 miles from Las Vegas, but has the potential to cause major structural damages here.

Nevada's earthquakes are triggered largely by a yearly half-inch northerly creep of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, while Nevada remains rigid and in place. As the strain builds, earthquakes can occur, like the 7.1-magnitude Hector Mine temblor in October 1999 that Las Vegas residents felt.

Southern Nevada's sediment-filled valleys make the area more prone to earthquake damages. Sediment that has washed and rolled down mountains surrounding Las Vegas fill the valley hundreds of feet deep in places, scientists said.

When an earthquake occurs outside of Nevada, the ground waves can shake the valley's bowl full of sediments.