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Millions of Americans at Risk from Strong Earthquakes

Apr 23, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Millions of Americans - more than 143 million living in the 48 contiguous states, to be exact - are at risk from strong, ground-shaking earthquakes, according to a new report.

"This analysis of data from the new National Seismic Hazard Maps reveals that significantly more Americans are exposed to earthquake shaking, reflecting both the movement of the population to higher risk areas on the west coast and a change in hazard assessments," co-author Bill Leith, senior science advisor at the US Geological Survey (USGS), said in a press release.

For comparison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated in 1994 that 75 million Americans in 39 states were at risk from earthquakes.

What's more, now it's more likely that as many as 28 million people will experience strong shaking from quakes during their lifetime.

The report, presented at the annual meeting of Seismological Society of America, was based on an analysis of the 2014 National Seismic Hazard Maps and the latest data on infrastructure and population. While the researchers focused on the 48 contiguous states, they note that about half the US population, or nearly 150 million Americans, are at risk of shaking from earthquakes when Alaska, Puerto Rico and Hawaii are also considered.

In the highest hazard zones, where 28 million Americans will experience strong shaking during their lifetime, key infrastructure could also face some serious damage. That includes more than 6,000 fire stations, more than 800 hospitals and nearly 20,000 public and private schools that may be exposed to strong ground motion from earthquakes.

The report puts the average long-term value of building losses from earthquakes at $4.5 billion per year, with roughly 80 percent of losses attributed to California, Oregon and Washington.

"Earthquakes remain an important threat to our economy," said USGS researcher Kishor Jaiswal. "While the west coast may carry the larger burden of potential losses and the greatest threat from the strongest shaking, this report shows that the threat from earthquakes is widespread."

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