SC not immune to earthquakes; we have dozens each year

January 31, 2010 

An earthquake of the magnitude that struck Haiti two weeks ago is not an impossibility for South Carolina, seismologists say.

"A lot of the things we're seeing in Haiti -- where the harbor sinks a little and homes are sinking into the ground because of soil liquefaction -- we saw in Charleston in 1886," said Erin Beutel, a seismologist and director of the College of Charleston's S.C. Earthquake Education and Preparedness Program.

The Charleston earthquake of 1886 measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, killed 60 people and was felt over 2.5 million square miles, including in Beaufort, where church bells rang and chimneys collapsed.

As Haiti digs out from the Jan. 13 quake, researchers and state emergency management officials say residents should be aware of the Palmetto State's own seismic past.

While a 7.0 magnitude quake might be a once in every 500-year occurrence in South Carolina, the state's coastline is still at significant risk of a sizable earthquake, Beutel said.

"That doesn't mean we aren't at risk of experiencing a 5 or 6," Beutel said. "If an earthquake like that happened in Beaufort or Charleston or Columbia, it would cause major damage to roads, infrastructures and buildings. The danger is that we just don't know when that's going to happen. It could happen at anytime. There's just not enough data to predict when that might happen."

South Carolina experiences between 20 to 30 earthquakes a year, three to eight of which are strong enough to be felt, according to geologists. The last recorded earthquake in South Carolina occurred in September about 20 miles northwest of Columbia and registered a 1.5 on the Richter scale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

About 70 percent of all recorded earthquakes in South Carolina have occurred in and around Charleston County, with a cluster of earthquakes striking Orangeburg County and parts of the Upstate, according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

The Charleston area lies in one of the most seismically active spots along the East Coast: two steeply dipping faults near Summerville and Bowman, according to the agency.

Given the state's history of quakes, Allison Dean-Love of the S.C. Insurance News Service said she's surprised more South Carolinians don't have earthquake insurance for their homes. Only 10 to 15 percent of S.C. homeowners have the coverage, which is not included in most homeowners policies.

"One of my biggest concerns this year is the lack of homeowners having earthquake insurance," Dean-Love said. "It's a separate endorsement so homeowners have to make that choice to get it."

Dean-Love said insurers across the state have not seen an increase in homeowners buying earthquake insurance since the Haiti quake. Such insurance costs $200 to $250 a year, depending on a home's location and its construction materials.

While stopping short of urging homeowners to buy extra insurance, Beutel said residents should prepare for an earthquake in the same way they prepare for hurricane season.

"People should be aware of where they live," Beutel said. "If you live in an old brick house on a marsh, you're more likely to experience catastrophic damage than if you live in a well-built home on solid land."

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