Afraid of quakes? At least we no longer have to fear the Elysian Park Fault

The Eastside has its own earthquake fault. It’s called the Elysian Park Fault, and for many years it was the viewed as the bad boy of local faults, generating worries that it could trigger a massive temblor in the heart of Los Angeles and cause as much as $40 billion in damage. In a story following the 1994 Northridge quake, Time magazine said the Elysian Park Fault was capable of unleashing an even more destructive force: “Should the Elysian Park system, which snakes beneath downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood hills, let loose with similar force, it would make last week’s monster seem tame.” Stories like that over the years – and the recent deadly quakes in Haiti and Chile – might leave many Eastside residents wondering about the dangers of living near or on top of the 10-mile wide, 20-mile long Elysian Park Fault. But, it turns out, that there is little to fear from the Elysian Park Fault, which got a bad rap, say many seismologists. “I’m skeptical if it’s still active,” said USC earth science professor James Dolan.

The fault lies underneath what geologists call the Elysian Park Anticline, a fold in the earth that stretches from about El Monte and arcs northwest through East Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Park and Silver Lake. On the surface, the anticline manifests itself as the hills of City Terrace as well as those of Elysian Heights and Silver Lake near the Los Angeles River. Teams of seismologists and geologists launched years of extensive studies of the fault system following the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake, which was initially blamed on the Elysian Park fault. A study published in the May 2000 issue of Geological Society of America Bulletin summarized the threat posed by the Elysian Park Fault:

“The blind Elysian Park fault may be large enough to produce an extraordinarily destructive earthquake in the densely populated metropolitan region. Because of thecentral location of this fault, losses from such an event would likely exceed the $40 billion (Eguchi, 1998) loss due to the Northridge earthquake, which struck the northern margin of the metropolitan region. A seismic source under the downtown area might result in collapse of some midlevel high-rise buildings (Heaton et al., 1995).”

In the decade since the publication of that report, however, further study has lead seismologists to believe that the Elysian Park Fault is more like a gentle, sleeping giant than the source of the next Big One. The fault was not even responsible for 1987 Whittier Narrows quake as initially believed, said Dolan, an expert on the risks posed by Los Angeles area quakes. Dolan said some seismologists may still consider the Elysian Park Fault a threat but residents have more to fear from the Puente Hills Fault, which stretches from Century City to Fullerton. So, for now,the Elysian Heights Fault is no longer the local seismic bad boy. “Puente Hills has taken on that mantle, ” Dolan said.

Map from Geological Society of America Bulletin

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