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Officials Unsure Historic Buildings Could Survive Potential Quake


In the aftermath of the recent Japanese and New Zealand earthquakes, many local officials and architects are wondering if V.I. historic buildings can stand up to a severe quake.

News reports aren’t yet indicating what’s happened to historic buildings in Japan, which was devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11. But the world does know what happened to many of those in Christchurch, New Zealand when it was hit with a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on Feb. 22. The steeple on the historic and eponymous church collapsed. Other historic buildings were also damaged or destroyed.

Will the territory’s historic building stand up?

“That’s a million dollar question,” Al Javois, a planner at the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said.

It’s a big unknown, agreed several people involved with the issue.

Sean Krigger, an architectural historian at the territory’s Historic Preservation Office, said the old wooden buildings will probably hold up better because they’re more flexible. And he hopes that the extensive mass of buildings like Fort Christian will help dissipate the force. That said, Krigger said that the fort has several large cracks on its south face that probably date to the 1867 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Charlotte Amalie Harbor.

There’s a similar story at Christiansted National Historic Site on St. Croix. Superintendent Joel Tutein said that a structural engineer from the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center visited two years ago to do an earthquake survey of the park’s historic buildings. He was supposed to return with some recommendations.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

Tutein pointed out that the buildings are nearly three centuries old and are still standing.

On St. John, V.I. National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove said that all the park’s historic buildings are vulnerable. He said that should an earthquake occur, they’ll be significant losses.

“That’s why we’re stabilizing them,” he said, listing the ruins at Trunk Bay and the large building at Creque Marine Railway on Hassel Island in St. Thomas as two getting braced, cabled and pointed with masonry.

He said that Catherineberg ruins are probably the most vulnerable because they are the tallest on St. John. However, Hardgrove said that restoration of the building on the west side of the road is slated for restoration starting next month.

Javois noted that there are many factors that lead a building to stand or fall in an earthquake. It depends, of course, on the magnitude but also on its depth and location. The one in Christchurch was 6.2 miles southeast of the city, and shallow—at only 3.1 miles below the surface.

“It could happen here,” Javois said.

As the 1867 earthquake and tsunami demonstrates, the territory sits in the same Seismic Zone 4 as earthquake-prone California. This zone has the highest probability of earthquakes. The territory frequently experiences less severe tremors that serve as a reminder. However, the territory’s building code now takes into account the territory’s location in Seismic Zone 4.

VITEMA received “some” grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund “visual screening” of a few of the territory’s historic buildings to see how they’ll stand up in earthquakes. The money won’t go far, so Javois said they have to prioritize.

He referred further questions to the Public Works Department since it is doing the screening, but Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls did not return several phone calls asking for more information.


  1. In light of the recent earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, many local officials and architects are wondering if V.I. historic buildings can stand up to a severe quake. So, this million dollar question deserves some free advice. Are the historic buildings made of concrete,earthquake-resistant to rock? Is the V.I. prepared for an earthquake above a 7.25 magnitude since the 1867 quake and tsunami? Let’s take another look and observe all the residences whose homes are built on concrete stilts. Will they hold or will the homes come tumbling down the hills? The V.I. is beautiful under normal circumstances, however a shallow earthquake above a 7.25 would wreak havoc on the historic and residential structures made of concrete….It would have a domino effect, so to speak… CATASTROPHIC…There is no protection from a tsunami in the low-lying areas either….So, my answer is no, the historic, concrete buildings will not survive a severe, shallow quake and tsunami. The V.I. is ill-prepared for the inevitable…….


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