Maui News

Hawai‘i Volcano Watch: Be Prepared for Nature’s Fury

October 14, 2017, 3:15 PM HST
* Updated October 14, 3:28 PM
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Damage to an unreinforced rock wall at Kalāhikiola Church in Kapa‘au, North Kohala, on the Island of Hawai‘i, following the magnitude-6.6 Kīholo and magnitude-6.0 Māhukona earthquakes in October 2006. USGS photo by J. Takahashi.

This summer went out like a lion with hurricanes and earthquakes: reminders to be prepared for nature’s fury.

As the summer months began to wind down this year, nature’s fury began to wind up and grab much of the news cycle.

On Sept. 8, as Irma, the second of four hurricanes to sweep across the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions thus far in 2017, was approaching Cuba, a magnitude-8.1 earthquake struck the western coast of Mexico. This was the largest earthquake to strike Mexico in 100 years. It caused widespread damage, injured hundreds and took dozens of lives.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 19, a M7.1 earthquake struck roughly 50 miles southeast of Mexico City. While not as strong as the Sept. 8 earthquake, this second event resulted in far greater damage, killing hundreds and injuring thousands of people, principally because of its proximity to Mexico’s capital and metropolitan area, where roughly 20 million people live.

Coincidentally, this M7.1 earthquake struck 32 years to the day since a M8.0 earthquake struck along Mexico’s western coast in 1985. Though centered hundreds of miles from Mexico City, the 1985 earthquake is often referred to as the “Mexico City earthquake” because of its devastating effects on that city.


Thousands perished in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Seismic waves were amplified by the lake bed and river sediments beneath the city. Strong ground shaking caused many buildings to collapse, trapping their occupants beneath and within. These same effects came into play during the Sept. 19, 2017, earthquake, as well.


An important consequence of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was the development and implementation of upgraded building codes in Mexico. These upgraded codes made it less likely that newly constructed buildings would collapse during an earthquake, and they possibly prevented even greater destruction and casualties resulting from last month’s earthquake.

Unlike hurricanes, which can be observed and tracked as they develop over days, earthquakes occur relatively instantaneously. Yet, if we know that an earthquake has occurred, and it is possibly large enough, we can estimate how soon damaging seismic waves will begin to shake different areas based on how far they are from the earthquake’s epicenter.

After the 1985 earthquake, Mexico was one of the first countries to use this principle to provide early warning of imminent strong earthquake shaking. Some reports have credited Mexico’s system with helping to reduce casualties associated with the September 2017 earthquakes. The United States Geological Survey is coordinating a U.S. West coast earthquake early warning effort with university and other partners in California, Oregon and Washington State.


While being warned that a damaging earthquake has struck can help minimize losses, it is critically important that we are prepared and know what to do to reduce damage and injury when earthquakes, like the 2006 Kīholo and Māhukona events, occur in Hawai‘i.

Across the U.S., annual Great ShakeOut earthquake awareness drills emphasize “Drop! Cover! and Hold On!” until strong shaking stops to avoid being struck by falling objects and before evacuating a damaged structure.

Practicing what to do during a large earthquake will help us take appropriate actions when the next one actually strikes. Because Sept. 19 marked the anniversary of the 1985 earthquake, Mexico City had conducted an earthquake drill earlier that day, just a matter of hours before the M7.1 earthquake struck. Along with preparation and planning, the importance of developing, implementing and enforcing appropriate building codes cannot be overstated.

As we “Drop! Cover! and Hold On!” during this year’s Great Hawaiʻi ShakeOut at 10:19 a.m. HST on Thursday, Oct. 19, let’s also dedicate a quiet moment to those adversely impacted by recent earthquakes. And, let’s think about ways we can improve our personal and community preparedness and resiliency to extreme natural events.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by U.S. Geological Survey`s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and colleagues.

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