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Schools to take part in earthquake drill

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 10:10 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Students at more than 80 Chicago schools will brace Thursday for the biggest fake earthquake in more than a year.

They're joining more than 2.7 million people across the Midwest who have pledged to drop, cover and hold on for the annual Great Central U.S. ShakeOut. The multistate earthquake drill is scheduled for 10:15 a.m.

For professor Julio Ramirez, the Great ShakeOut is a yearly reminder that earthquakes can rock the most unlikely places — and often catch their inhabitants off guard. Feb. 7 is also the 201st anniversary of four powerful earthquakes that struck the New Madrid Seismic Zone and rattled the Midwest so hard they sent the Mississippi River flowing in the opposite direction.

"These events have happened in recent history, and the public needs to be aware of this," said Ramirez, the head of an earthquake research hub at Purdue University.

In Illinois, serious earthquakes are rare but not unheard of. Over the last 209 years, the northern part of the state has experienced 18 earthquakes that could be felt in Chicago — eight in Cook County, according to the Illinois State Geological Survey.

In low-probability locations like Chicago, Ramirez explained, some structures are built without "seismic considerations" and thus are more vulnerable to earthquake damage than similar buildings in California, for example.

"When you look at the risk of earthquakes in the Midwest, you cannot just look at the frequency, but the exposure," Ramirez said. "It's just like if you go out and buy car insurance."

A facility at Purdue called the NEEShub allows earthquake researchers like Ramirez to simulate the conditions that can cripple a city's infrastructure overnight. The 66,000-square-foot facility is the center of the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering and connects 14 like-minded labs across the country.

The NEEShub's main attractions? "Shake tables," or rumbling platforms that can replicate earthquake activity, and simulated accelerations that can produce as much as 50 G's of gravitational force, a potentially fatal amount.

At Brickton Montessori School on the Northwest Side, the Great ShakeOut is treated just as a fire drill, head of school Cheryl Lacost said. "It's not something to make the kids fearful as much as it's just some more practice."

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