Ask 2 Weather: What would Houston look like if we had an earthquake?

What would happen if an earthquake hit Houston?
What would happen if an earthquake hit Houston? (iStock/doguhakan)

At KPRC 2, we’re dedicated to keeping Houstonians informed. As part of our new Ask 2 series, the newsroom will answer your questions about all things Houston.

The question: What would Houston look like if we had an earthquake? I know it’s clay and sand, would that help or hurt?

The answer: This Channel 2 viewer is obviously looking for an answer to a hypothetical question. The first thing for anyone reading this to understand is that earthquakes are exceedingly rare statewide, much less in southeast Texas. Very minor earthquakes have been recorded in the region, but no major ones. Even the small ones are almost non-existent.

The bottom line is that we have enough to worry about with hurricanes here, so please do not lose sleep over earthquakes!

For the sake of our curious viewer, though, let’s dive a little deeper into the hypothetical. In a small earthquake, one that we could barely feel, Houston would be absolutely fine. A major earthquake, however, would be a catastrophe. Because of the silty, sandy soil in Houston, a major earthquake would cause the ground to take on liquid properties -- a process called liquefaction. Buildings would likely lose their footing, break apart and begin to sink. Elevated roads would also suffer major damage or collapse completely.

The science behind the phenomenon is interesting. It comes down to the types of waves that earthquakes generate:

P Waves: These are “primary” waves because they are the fastest and the first to be felt in an earthquake. P waves are compression-tension waves that act horizontally, and shake the ground from side to side.

P waves are compression waves that shake the earth horizontally. Image courtesy of the USGS

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