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GOVERNMENT NOT READY FOR QUAKE

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Earlier this year, President Bush issued an executive order telling federal agencies to design or upgrade their facilities to withstand an earthquake. Before that can be done, the government must find out what conditions its buildings are in - something it doesn't currently know.

What is known is that the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are the only two federal agencies that include seismic design in their new buildings.In testimony before a Senate subcommittee, earthquake engineers said the government is at least five years away from being able to assess which buildings are likely to collapse in a quake and the cost of shoring them up.

Not only are buildings a question mark, the government does not know which vital underground gas and oil pipelines, power lines and which highways and bridges are most vulnerable to earthquakes.

The Western United States is at least more familiar with the dangers of earthquakes - from sad experience - even if most structures are not built with earth tremors and the location of faults in mind. But the Midwest and East are worse off.

As members of the subcommittee were told, some 50 crude oil pipelines alone cross the New Madrid Fault in middle America. In 1811 and 1812, the fault was the site of two of the biggest earthquakes in U.S. history, both estimated to have been more than 8.0 on the Richter scale.

The devastation from a quake of that size in the same location today would be just short of that caused by nuclear war, experts told the Senate.

While all of this is alarming, the nation's infrastructure is in more immediate danger of falling apart from age and decay than from an abrupt earthquake, due to a lack of funds for repairs and replacement.

If the basic infrastructure cannot even be kept in good repair, there is not much chance of remodeling the whole thing to make it quake resistant. But as repairs are made, they should include earthquake designs.

To start, the federal government certainly must take inventory to see where it stands. Unfortunately, if and when a major quake occurs, the nation is sure to be woefully unprepared in many respects.