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Oklahoma quakes vs. tornadoes: Comparing the damage factor

From the ENE ongoing investigation: Who's at fault? series
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Quake damage

A house in central Oklahoma shows damage from the magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Nov. 6, 2011. This was the largest earthquake in state history to date. (Photo by Brian Sherrod, U.S. Geological Survey)

ENID, Okla. — With all the shaking, rattling and rolling going on in Oklahoma, property owners are concerned for their buildings, but most buildings should stand up to the state’s newfound seismic activity.

The buildings most vulnerable to damage are old red brick buildings, said Steven O’Hara, a professor of architectural engineering at Oklahoma State University’s School of Architecture.

“Most of these red brick building with wood floors, wood roofs, built at the turn of the century, they are susceptible because they are too brittle,”O’Hara, said. “That’s true of any earthquake zone.”

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Oklahoma always has been a “lightly seismic” region, he said, and architecture curriculum reflects that.

“The teaching of design for earthquake and wind has always been part of the curriculum here,” he said. “There has always been been part of the curriculum to understand the forces on buildings by earthquakes. The frequency of earthquakes really has no affect on that. We don’t teach students to just live in Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma is rich in turn-of-the century red brick buildings, but O’Hara said the magnitude of earthquakes the state is experiencing so far wouldn’t bring down most of those structures.

“We might have some buildings that suffer some cracking, except in the case of some rare occurrence,” he said. “There’s some concern they could suffer some distress, but not more than what we would get from wind or tornadoes.”

Hans Butzer, director of architecture at the University of Oklahoma, said architecture students are required to take structures courses that include curriculum on lateral forces — earthquakes, wind storms, tornadoes — that push on buildings.

“In some ways, earthquakes and wind push on a building in the same way,” he said. “Earthquakes are probably more complex in that not only do you have the left-to-right motion, but you have the up-and-down forces.”

Bill Ellsworth, a geologist with the U.S. Geological survey, said historic brick buildings are great in tornadoes, but not earthquakes.

“They’re very brittle,” he said. “When you build a structure to deal with earthquakes, you need to sway to go with the motions.”

Brick buildings don’t sway, he said, and that can cause problems after an earthquake.

“The building may not be serviceable after the event,” he said.

Earthquakes are similar to tornadoes, he said.

“They happen every year, and you hope it doesn’t go through your house,” he said. “The difference is that earthquakes affect a large area.”