Scott Suchy photo illustration

The Great Quake Question

At 9:51 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1886, the largest East Coast earthquake in recorded history ripped through Charleston with an epicenter near Summerville. The 60-second event killed about 100 people, destroyed 2,000 buildings and caused $600 million in damage when adjusted for inflation.

Photos courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

More than a century later, the 1886 earthquake remains a notorious piece of Charleston’s history, but with U.S. Census data showing an average 40 people moving into the area daily, many people are unaware of the annual seismic activity in the Lowcountry and the state.

Earthquakes have been in the news this year as the Midlands region recorded 12 earthquakes since the start of 2022 and the state has been rocked by 19 earthquakes since Dec. 27. Typically, South Carolina experiences five to 15 per year.

Levine | Photo provided

Dr. Norm Levine, a geology and environmental geosciences professor at the College of Charleston, said seismic activity here is normal. He explained the seemingly increased prevalence of earthquakes is partially due to more sensitive seismometers picking up low-magnitude activity, which most people wouldn’t even notice.

The recent quakes have been minor, all measuring under 2.5 on the Ritcher scale. In comparison, the 1886 earthquake would have measured a whopping 7.3.

It’s on the way, but likely later

Though the city has yet to experience another earthquake of this magnitude, experts believe it’s coming — but not as soon as we think.

College of Charleston professor Dr. Vijay Vulava studied evidence of old earthquakes in Charleston’s subsurface and found that 7.0 magnitude events occur about every 500 hundred years, which should leave South Carolina with plenty of time before the next one. 

However, Levine cautions serious earthquake risks still exist. “Earthquakes don’t just happen as big ones,” said Levine, who also heads the Lowcountry Hazards Center and the S.C. Earthquake Education and Preparedness Program. “Every 125 to 175 years South Carolina might experience something in the 5.0 range. The last 5.0 was in 1910, so we’re sitting in the time zone for something at that level.”

A 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Charleston would cause significant destruction. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) risk analysis program gives a glimpse into potential damage. With approximately 231,000 buildings in the greater Charleston area, this model estimates a 5.0 earthquake would cause moderate damage to 4,040 buildings, extensive damage to 482 and complete damage to 45. Up the magnitude to 6.0 and those numbers increase to 50,261 buildings with moderate damage, 17,404 buildings with extensive damage and 4,785 destroyed.

While a 7.0 magnitude earthquake might be hundreds of years away, the threat is still very real, which begs the question: how prepared is Charleston?

Government preparedness

“We have multiple plans that touch upon earthquakes,” reassured Charleston County Emergency Management Department (EMD) director Joe Coates. As does the City of Charleston, which is currently updating its earthquake plan. Government plans encompass immediate response logistics, recovery plans and mitigation.

Following a major quake, inspecting the 120 bridges in Charleston County is the first priority. Coates explained the county would likely then revert immediately to its aerial operational plans, which outlines emergency helicopter landing zones for medical evacuation and supply delivery.

“We’ve been working on a specific earthquake plan update with FEMA and the South Carolina EMD for the last six months. It should be completed within the next year,” Coates said. “We’ll have exercises that go with it.”

Practice is key when it comes to preparation. The county is participating in FEMA’s national program in June with a full-scale, multi-day regional earthquake emergency response exercise. The goal is to test current earthquake plans and assess regional communication between Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties.

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With earthquake damage comes the potential for other catastrophic events, such as damage to the Pinopolis or Santee dams. The county also participates in an annual exercise with Santee Cooper, the state’s utility which owns the Pinopolis Dam.

Based on risk models, the county would have 24 to 48 hours before flood water inundated coastal areas, giving people time to leave, Coates said.

From a governmental standpoint, the Charleston area is well-prepared to respond to a major earthquake using current contingency plans that address setting up temporary help centers, evaluating bridges, getting supplies and communicating with residents.

Levine, who works with local governments on emergency preparedness, describes the county and city agencies as “wonderfully prepared,” though he acknowledges more preparation is always helpful.

The county’s public information office recommends following its Twitter page for real-time updates in the event of an emergency. For residents without internet access, 

or if power outages occur, the county has other communication methods.

“We can knock on people’s doors, drop messages out of aircrafts, use bullhorns on fire and police vehicles,” Coates said. “Anything creative — even getting biplanes with banners to go up and down the coast.”

School safety

Much like local government agencies, the Charleston County School District (CCSD) has drills and security protocols to keep students and faculty safe. CCSD’s executive director of security and emergency management Michael Reidbach said all emergency plans are updated annually. The district conducted a thorough overhaul of plans this summer, expanding details on drills and procedures.

“Our plans are developed based on input from all subject matter experts,” Reidenbach said. “Local and state EMD officials, the folks at the College of Charleston, just to get as much input as we can to make sure we’re covering what we need to.”

Students in Charleston are familiar with earthquake drills as schools participate in an annual drill in October, which corresponds with the national Great American Shakeout. Drills are built around three steps: drop, cover and hold on.

Students practice dropping to the floor, ducking under a large, sturdy object like a desk and holding on. Schools also advise students on which specific outdoor areas to seek out during an earthquake, namely open areas away from trees and buildings.

A bigger concern is how structurally prepared school buildings are to withstand a major earthquake. In the last decade, seismic repairs were made at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School, Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive Academy, James Simon Montessori, Memminger Elementary School and the former Rivers building, now housing Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. 

A coming phase V construction program will include replacements of older facilities including a new C.E. Williams Middle School and the demolition of the old Ron McNair building in North Charleston to be replaced with the new Malcolm Hursey Montessori School, CCSD confirmed.

Operations staff also confirmed that yearly inspections are conducted and seismic studies are performed once unless building codes related to earthquakes change. According to the district, earthquake codes were last changed in 2001.

Having good information available about the structural integrity of school buildings is crucial not only to the safety of students but also to residents, as Levine mentioned schools are often used as potential care centers following a natural disaster.

Build a family plan

Unlike more predictable natural disasters such as hurricanes, an earthquake can strike at any time with little to no warning. Levine explained that California can predicate quakes because they occur more often and typically in a recognizable sequence that is an understood precursor to a larger event. South Carolina has not experienced enough major earthquakes to recognize build-up sequence signs.

Charleston’s fast-growing population of individuals from other states means many residents are unaware of the threat and ill-equipped to react in an emergency earthquake situation. The way for individuals to be prepared is to have a plan. Elements of a good plan include:

  • Families should have a safe meeting place and know evacuation routes.
  • Stand inside against a wall or doorway and try to crawl under heavy furniture.
  • Avoid glass windows.
  • Never run outside. (In 1886, frightened citizens ran outside only to be killed by brick and masonry veneering falling from buildings.)
  • Consider earthquake insurance, which one area insurance broker said could cost $570 a year for $156,000 in coverage.
  • Have an emergency kit ready that includes flashlights, batteries, first-aid kits, and non-perishable food and water for at least 72 hours. A full list of supply kit items can be found through the S.C. Emergency Management Department’s website.

Wood frame structures and buildings with reinforced concrete are the safest in the event of an earthquake. Buildings with brick and masonry veneering are most dangerous, and in the Charleston area, these buildings are often historic. Buildings that sustained the 1886 earthquake are particularly vulnerable since the structures were weakened by that event.

“You’ve got to realize, when that 1886 earthquake hit, there were about 1,500 people living in the Summerville area. Now, there are well over 200,000 people living there,” Levine said. “Your hurricane supply kit is not just for hurricane season. It’s a year-round emergency kit, just in case of an earthquake.”

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