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November 29, 2012

Earthquake simulator visited Indiana State campus Wednesday

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State University freshman Patrick Buhl experienced a violent 7.0 magnitude earthquake Wednesday.

And a 3.0 magnitude earthquake.

And a 5.5 earthquake.

It all happened within a matter of seconds in Terre Haute at what is called the Quake Cottage, an earthquake simulator that mimics the shaking experienced during a real earthquake.

Representatives of the Indiana Geological Survey operate the Quake Cottage, which is funded by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to promote earthquake education and preparedness.

Buhl described the back-and-forth, rolling motion of the 3.0 simulated quake as “pretty tame.” He thought the 5.5 was the 7.0, and when he finally did experience the violent shaking of the 7.0, “I was pretty shocked at how powerful it was.”

He visited the Quake Cottage at an ISU parking lot as part of an environmental science class. Reacting to the experience, Buhl said, “It would be nice to be prepared for one. If a 7.0 [earthquake] hits your house, there probably won’t be a whole lot left.”

The cottage is a 25- by 8- by 14-foot unit mounted on a double-axle trailer. The interior replicates a typical living room. Items inside are fastened down to protect occupants.

Earthquakes occur infrequently in Indiana, which causes a lot of complacency, said Walter Gray, educational outreach coordinator with the Indiana Geological Survey. But Hoosiers need to take them seriously.

Indiana has experienced major earthquakes in the past — researchers suggest at least four events in the last 12,000 years that had a magnitude of 6.0 to 7.0, Gray said.

And it’s likely Indiana will experience another, although when is anyone’s guess. “It’s beyond the capability of our science to predict earthquakes,” Gray said.

The Indiana Geological Survey (IGS) website states, “It is reasonable to conclude that we do indeed face the possibility of experiencing the potentially devastating effects of a major earthquake at some point in the future.”

Terre Haute is at risk from the Wabash Valley Fault zone and the New Madrid Fault.

The IGS uses the Quake Cottage to educate people about potential risks and hazards. IGS staff also teach people about some inexpensive steps they can take in their home or business that can protect property and save lives, Gray said.

That could include strapping the hot water heater to the wall to prevent fires and to preserve a fresh water supply, he said. Other possible measures include flexible connection pipes between appliances and their supply lines; earthquake straps to prevent bookcases or china cabinets from falling over; and earthquake putty to keep family heirlooms or vases from falling over.

Also, there is heavy emphasis on emergency disaster kits, Gray said. As Hurricane Sandy has demonstrated, it takes a while for emergency response to take place after a disaster, he said.

ISU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Systems and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) Program arranged for the Quake Cottage to visit campus. ISU students, staff, faculty and OLLI participants visited the cottage throughout the day.

Suzanne Walters and Brenda Lower, staff members in the department of Earth and Environmental Systems, both participated.

Walters described the 3.0 earthquake simulation as “kind of like when you hit turbulence in an airplane,” while a 5.0 was “like a roller coaster ride.” As for a 7.0: “It was rocky — we sat in a chair, and we were sliding forward and coming out of the chair.” There were handles to hold onto, she said.

The 7.0 magnitude simulation “knocked your bottom out of the seat,” Lower said.

Items would have fallen out of bookcases and cabinets, but straps, latches, earthquake putty and other devices were used to keep everything in place and from falling over.

While it was eye-opening, “I know when you’re in the real thing it would be quite different than sitting in a simulator,” Walters said.

Both learned that installation of flexible pipe fittings could help avoid gas and water leaks. Lower said that’s something she’ll think about when she installs a new furnace at her home next year.

Tony Rathburn, ISU professor of geology, had students in his Wednesday classes visit Quake Cottage.

“I hope they get a greater awareness of the fact that the Midwest can experience a significant earthquake,” he said. “We’re not really prepared in the Midwest, in general, for an earthquake of any size.”

The geology in the Midwest lends itself to widespread damage in the event of a major earthquake, he and Gray said.

“We’re going to experience earthquakes,” Rathburn said. “There is no doubt about it. Certainly in the past, we’ve experienced some very big ones.”

For more information about the Quake Cottage program, go to www.igs.indiana.edu/EarthquakeExperience.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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