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Infrastructure Weathers Quake; Monument, Cathedral Damaged

Thursday, August 25, 2011

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The good news: The U.S.’s much-lamented aging infrastructure appeared to ride out the East Coast earthquake—and aftershocks—this week with few problems.

The bad news: At least two national icons did not.

The Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral, in Washington DC, sustained serious quake damage that shut down both structures.

‘Substantial Damage’

The Washington Monument—the world’s tallest stone structure—was closed indefinitely after the National Park Service found fractures in the 555-foot-high obelisk, which was completed in 1884.

At the National Cathedral, officials reported “substantial damage” as three of the four spires atop the central tower broke off, flying buttresses cracked, and several statues toppled during Tuesday’s 5.8-magnitude quake, which was centered near Mineral, Va.

 Washington National Cathedral

 Washington National Cathedral

Stone masons and engineers have been inspecting the damage to the Washington National Cathedral since Tuesday’s quake. Chief stone mason Joe Alonso called the damage “surreal.”

Some 12 million people from Georgia to Canada felt tremors from the quake, the most powerful to strike the East Coast in 67 years.

The capital area was hit by at least five aftershocks following the quake, including one of magnitude 4.5 that struck early Thursday.

Infrastructure Intact

Inspections of bridges, tunnels, pipelines, waterworks and highways were still underway Thursday throughout the affected states, but no major damage was reported.

President Obama was advised that the region’s aging infrastructure had weathered the event well.

In North Carolina, officials were preparing for another potential disaster by inspecting an aging bridge that will be a key evacuation route for people leaving the coast ahead of Hurricane Irene, which is expected over the weekend, the Associated Press reported. Inspectors at the Bonner Bridge saw no problems.

Pennsylvania was one of many states where inspectors fanned out to assess damage.

Jeffrey R. Levan, bridge safety program engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation,  said bridge inspections began shortly after the Tuesday afternoon earthquake and continued until sunset. “Then we got up at 6 a.m. Wednesday and continued all through the day,” he told The Daily Item, in the Lehigh Valley.

Post-earthquake inspections were a first for Levan, who has been with PennDOT since the late 1980s, he said.

The good news, he said: “We found nothing.”

One bridge near Reading, PA, was closed as a precaution after cracks were found in an abutment. But PennDOT inspectors said the cracks may already have been there and reopened the bridge Tuesday night.

Nuclear Plant Alerts Cancelled

The quake also triggered alerts at 13 nuclear power plants from North Carolina to Michigan.

Twelve nuclear plants were monitored after reporting unspecified “Unusual Events”—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s lowest emergency classification—while the temblor automatically shut down two reactors at the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia, just seven miles northeast of the quake’s epicenter.

All alerts were cancelled by late Wednesday, and the NRC reported normal operations at all facilities, although monitoring continued at North Anna.

“North Anna is currently assessing the plant’s normal operating systems and structures,” the NRC said in a statement. “The NRC’s resident inspectors at the plant continue to observe the plant’s activities and provide first-hand information to the agency.

“In light of the quake’s strength and proximity to the plant, the NRC will soon decide whether to conduct a follow-up inspection, aimed at determining how the quake compares to what the plant was designed to withstand.”

Plant owner Dominion Power has said the facility could withstand a quake up to magnitude 6.1.

Washington Monument Damage

In Washington, the National Park Service (NPS) engaged Wiss, Janney, Elstner (WJE) Associates Inc. of Northbook, IL, and Tipping Mar Associates of Berkeley, CA, to assess the Washington Monument after an inspection uncovered multiple cracks in the structure.

 Washington Monument

 US Park Police Aviation Unit

The Washington Monument has been closed since Tuesday’s quake, after several fractures were found in the structure’s pyramidion, or uppermost section.

Both firms have extensive experience in inspecting earthquake-damaged structures, the Park Service said.

“We are bringing in WJE because of their experience not only with seismic issues, but with historic structures,” said Robert A. Vogel, Superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. "The Washington Monument is one of America's most important landmarks, and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that it is restored completely and correctly.”

Cathedral Damage Estimated in Millions

At the Washington National Cathedral, engineers and masons were continuing inspection of smashed and chipped stonework. Repairs to the privately owned, 99-year-old landmark will cost millions of dollars and are not covered by insurance, cathedral officials said.

Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s chief stonemason, gave a video tour of the damage. Alonso called the situation “surreal” but assured reporters: “My colleagues and I know this building like the back of our hands.”

 Washington National Cathedral
Officials were grateful that most of the broken stone fell inward, on to the roof, rather than out onto streets and sidewalks.

The cathedral said in a statement that the buttresses supporting the main, central tower appeared to be sound, and the tower itself was not leaning, as a spokesman had reported previously.

Civil War Pipes

Despite the generally good news, officials along the East Coast remained cautious Thursday. Hurricane Irene was advancing, and tensions were already running high on the eve of the 10th anniversary of September 11.

“We saw some telephone lines go down,” said Al Berman, executive director of the nonprofit Disaster Recovery Institute International, told Computerworld. “Fortunately, we didn't see gas lines go down because, just like in Japan, it's infrastructure that causes the most problems.”

He added: "It's especially an issue in the Northeast. There are pipes in New York City that date back to the Civil War.”

Scientific American also sounded a cautious note, noting that a 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers survey of U.S. infrastructure found that, for example, some 4,000 of the nation’s 85,000-plus dams are unsafe or deficient. Moreover, nearly 1,800 of the deficient dams are located where a breach would cause severe damage to life or property, the publication reported.

NYC ‘Wasn’t Supposed to be Seismic’

“New York City wasn't supposed to be seismic 20 or 30 years ago," Tarek Abdoun, a civil engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told the magazine, “but the standard for what should require seismic loading has changed.”

The magazine noted that seismologists “have discovered potentially serious fault lines everywhere from the Carolinas to Missouri” in recent decades. It said engineers had begun retrofitting dams “that suddenly are found to be located in earthquake-prone areas. But progress is slow and expensive.”

 Concrete dam

 Association of State Dam Safety Officials

More than 4,400 U.S. dams are unsafe, making them vulnerable to quake damage, officials say. States reported 132 dam failures from 2005 to 2009.

“The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that $50 billion would be needed to repair all the nation's faulty dams,” the magazine said. “Until that money comes through, fragile nuclear reactors should not be our only worry.”


Tagged categories: Construction; Disasters; Health and safety; Historic Structures; Monuments

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