Earthquakes and Expectations

Posted on January 21, 2015

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Since April of last year, 43 small earthquakes have shaken up Irving, Texas, a large Dallas suburb that until recently was disturbed only by an occasional hailstorm and the recurring smashups on its freeways and toll roads. Granted, the largest quakes in this swarm have displayed a magnitude of only around 3.6, but earthquakes are as foreign to most people in this city as are typhoons or glaciers. Now it’s not unusual to feel several of them in a single day.

I’ve taken sharp note of several quakes while working in my home office. Some have resembled a truck smashing into a wall half a mile away; others have seemed to be a gust of wind that rattled the upper floors. For the most part, they’ve gone unnoticed by the populace; and when they do register, they last only a few seconds.

Their origin, nevertheless, is a mystery. All have occurred on the Irving/Dallas border, around the site of the former Texas Stadium that once was home to the Dallas Cowboys. Residents are quick to blame fracking and wastewater injection for the temblors, but according to NBC News in Dallas:

A handout provided by the City of Irving highlighted several rebuttals to those concerns, including a statement that there has been no fracking in the city since 2010, that there has never been any waste water injection done within the city limits and that, by city ordinance, any waste water produced from drilling in Irving was trucked out of the city.

So what is the cause? Local engineers are closely monitoring a dozen seismographs placed around the 90 acre site that currently is used by the state Department of Transportation to store materials for road projects. But no one has proffered a reasonable theory of the earthquake origins as yet, and four more struck yesterday.

It’s curious that Texas has been fighting tooth-and-tax-break with California to attract businesses here, citing among other things the natural disasters to which the Golden State is prone. Maybe the quakes are a sign of partial success—we’ve managed to draw the California environment to Texas without the high cost of living.

More likely the cause is simply one of those unexpected geological or environmental quirks that manage to change the image—and sometimes the landscape—of a city in a frightened heartbeat. At the extreme, these events completely reshape the impressions left by names like New Orleans, Joplin or Fukushima. At the least, they generate questions about assumptions we’ve made—our expectations of communities, corporations and leaders who often should have anticipated a disaster before it happened and could have taken steps to mitigate or prevent it.

Situations like earthquake swarms in Irving are red flags that should be alerting city officials, business leaders and institutions across the region to examine their crisis communications plans and ensure they are prepared for what may have seemed the least likely of emergencies.

If 3.6 becomes 6.3, if shaking windows becomes shattered buildings, how can impacted businesses, schools and neighborhoods take action to restore services and begin recovering? Their crisis communication plans should detail the process far in advance of the need to implement it. Communication is the core to recovery in a crisis.

Create your crisis team, equip its members to communicate, arm them with a plan and a process, and you can consider yourself a hero, even if the earthquake swarms dissipate beneath the end zone. You will have planned to protect your people and your property effectively, and that’s the true goal.

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