Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2014

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The ultimate ‘what if’

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Imagine these scenes of Las Vegas, appearing on national television:

Strip resorts collapsing to the ground. Glass and concrete tumbling onto pedestrian-filled streets. Chandeliers crashing to the floor in crowded ballrooms. Highway overpasses pancaking cars. Black clouds of smoke smothering our valley.

These depictions of devastation will be brought to you the night of Jan. 14 on The Weather Channel.

The scenes - including the computer-generated sight of Caesars Palace as smoking ruins - are presented in a Weather Channel documentary on the impact of a hypothetical big earthquake. It's part of a series titled, ominously, "It Could Happen Tomorrow."

Suffice to say, it's not sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The show examines the seismic risks of Southern Nevada, and a basic-cable glimpse of what could happen here - tomorrow or a hundred years from now.

Scientists have long known that Las Vegas is crisscrossed by earthquake faults and even more active faults are a few hundred miles away in California. Small earthquakes, many that are barely or not even detectable to the casual observer, are common in the region. Larger earthquakes capable of significant damage have occurred here too, but not for about 1,000 years.

"It is long odds, but we definitely do have the potential," says Catherine Snelson, a UNLV geosciences assistant professor who was interviewed for The Weather Channel documentary. Snelson is one of several experts in the program who also were interviewed for a Nov. 27 Las Vegas Sun story on the potential for earthquakes in Southern Nevada.

"The geologists would say we're overdue," Snelson says. "It is a real possibility that we could see one of those earthquakes in our lifetime."

She says the odds are 20 percent to 30 percent that Las Vegas could have a damaging earthquake in the next 50 years.

"The time between big earthquakes is a real long time, but when they do go, they go in a big way," she says.

For the show, Snelson and her UNLV colleague, Wanda Taylor, discuss the possibility of an earthquake hitting Frenchman Fault, a 20-mile fault on the east side of the Las Vegas Valley that some scientists believe could be the epicenter of a big earthquake.

Their appearance in The Weather Channel program was not intended to alarm residents or chase away cash-carrying visitors, but to let people know of the potential for significant seismic action, Snelson says.

"The potential is there and we should take it seriously," she says. "If we had a disaster, we just don't want people to suffer like they did after Hurricane Katrina," the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans.

Warning people won't stop many from flocking to the desert playground that is Las Vegas, she predicts.

"People go to California all the time," Snelson notes. Alaska and California are, according to a recent UNR study, the only states more seismically active than Nevada. And other states and regions face threats from various other natural events, from volcanoes to hurricanes - which also are subjects of The Weather Channel series.

David Strow, a Harrah's Entertainment spokesman, says his company has planned for disaster and the effect it would have on both employees and guests of its seven local resorts, including Caesars.

"We're well prepared to deal with large-scale disasters," Strow says, noting that the company suffered losses at its Gulf Coast properties in Hurricane Katrina. "We're constantly reviewing our disaster plans to find ways to make them more effective and efficient."

He says the company doesn't have any particular concern with the scenario presented by The Weather Channel.

"It sounds like this is a dramatization of scientific research," Strow says. "We wouldn't be concerned about that. Our guests are more than capable of making a distinction between reality and a hypothetical situation of what may or may not happen in Las Vegas in the future."

Vince Alberta, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, doesn't think business will be affected by The Weather Channel documentary. Las Vegas has not had a natural disaster of great magnitude since its founding more than 100 years ago, he says.

Nonetheless, the resort industry works closely with Clark County Emergency Management to prepare for the worst, Alberta says.

The program quotes local building officials who say that the large resort structures have been built or in some cases retrofitted to survive large earthquakes. Most susceptible to earthquake-generated ground movement are 10-story brick buildings, and there are relatively few such buildings in the Las Vegas area.

Connie Malko, a spokeswoman for The Weather Channel, says the goal of the program is to be "informative without being alarmist." The cable network began the series a year ago, but one episode had to be edited after the fact. In April 2005 the network produced the pilot episode discussing the potential effect of a Category 4 hurricane on New Orleans. Katrina struck the city four months later, prompting the network to produce an edited version which aired earlier this month.

"For years, scientists have been warning of certain devastating events and each of us continues to think 'it can't happen here,' " Malko says. "We hope that 'It Could Happen Tomorrow' will bring awareness to the importance of personal, community and national preparedness."

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