Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 20, 2000 in the Sunday Beacon Magazine.

We Northeast Ohioans tend to be humble about our geology. After all, we have no Rocky Mountains, no Grand Canyons, no Big Surs.

But when it comes to earthquakes, we're downright cocky. Can't happen here, we say. Might have to worry about tornadoes and blizzards and floods, but not earthquakes. And, by the way, what's with those fools who build houses on the San Andreas fault?

Well, wipe away the smirk. Ohio's earthquake history goes back only a couple hundred years -- the blink of an eye in geological terms. And that brief period of relative calm is giving us a false sense of security.

In reality, we may be living more dangerously than the residents of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

"We do have earthquakes," says College of Wooster geology professor Robert Varga, "and in many ways they're scarier than California's."

He is referring to the fact that, although 80 percent of the world's quakes occur along the edges of the earth's tectonic plates, the remaining 20 percent happen far from those edges -- in places like Australia, mainland China and, yes, Northeast Ohio.

The reason for these "intraplate" quakes is not clear. Unlike the tremors that occur where the world's 12 major plates are scraping against each other, scientists don't understand the dynamics of quakes in the middle of a plate. Yet those can be just as deadly.

Some experts say they would not be surprised if Northeast Ohio eventually shakes and bakes to the tune of 6.5 or even 7.0 on the Richter scale -- as big or bigger than the Northridge quake that ripped up Los Angeles in 1994.

On that mild January morning, major freeways were pulled apart, buildings collapsed and fires raged. Sixty-two people died and 2,600 were hurt. The final bill was $25 billion. And Californians expect earthquakes.

If the same 6.7 quake hit here, the damage would be far worse. It's not just that our building codes don't acknowledge the possibility of a significant quake. The other frightening reality is that not all 6.7 quakes are created equal.

Much of California rests on hard, broken-up rocks that quickly slow down an earthquake's vibrations, much like objects in a pond slow down the waves created when you toss in a pebble. By contrast, the crust beneath Ohio consists of flat, brittle rocks that were dragged in by glaciers. Those softer rocks don't slow down an earthquake's waves as rapidly, enabling the waves to travel up to 10 times farther. That means a 6.7 quake here would hammer a much bigger area than a 6.7 quake in L.A.

Although the study of earthquakes is still relatively primitive -- the day after Northridge, scientists admitted they hadn't even known that particular fault existed -- geologists have learned enough in recent years to be increasingly worried about Ohio. During the 1980s, the U.S. Geological Survey began to put together new "forecasting maps" (everyone in the business cringes at the mere mention of the word prediction) that have pushed our state into shakier territory. By 1997, the latest maps showed that "Ohio has significantly more damage potential than before," says Varga.

And the second-riskiest part of the state, after the west, is the northeast.

Among other things, the new research identified something called the Akron Magnetic Boundary. While making aeromagnetic and gravity maps of Ohio (done with special instruments that try to determine the configuration and type of matter below the surface), geologists discovered a significant fault line running through the heart of Summit County. It starts in Rittman, travels northeast through Summit County -- passing directly through Copley, Montrose, Fairlawn, Blossom Music Center and western Hudson -- then continues up through western Geauga County, ending at the border of Lake and Ashtabula counties.

Exactly what's going on down there is pure conjecture. Because nothing is visible on the surface and nobody has the money to drill deep exploratory holes, "the question is, 'How big is this fault zone?' " says Michael Hansen, the top geologist for the state of Ohio. "Does it run for many miles, or is it short little segments? And then what is its capability of generating how big an earthquake?"

We do know it can deliver at least a 5.0. That was the reading for the January 1986 quake near Painesville that broke windows, cracked foundations, caused several injuries and ruffled the complacency of folks in Akron and Cleveland.

Still, it's difficult to persuade Ohioans to devote much time to worrying about earthquakes. Heck, when the second-biggest quake in the state's history -- a 5.2 -- hit near Pymatuning Reservoir on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on Sept. 25, 1998, most people didn't even notice.

What we seem to forget is that the Richter scale is logarithmic. A 5.2 is only one-tenth the size of 6.2. Even a small change in magnitude can make a world of difference. Just ask the folks in the tiny village of Anna.

RED ZONE

Anna is a one-stoplight town that sits hard by Interstate 75 on the relentlessly flat no man's land of Shelby County, about midway between Lima and Dayton in western Ohio. The city limits are exactly one mile apart. You could film a 1950s movie there and not need to change much of the scenery. Even the Honda engine plant that went up just outside of town 15 years ago hasn't changed things much.

But this innocent little burg of 1,200 seems to be wearing a big, red bull's-eye. Of the 120 earthquakes felt in Ohio since 1776, Anna has been home to a third of them -- including the state's all-time biggie on March 9, 1937.

The first sign of trouble came a week earlier. At about 9:45 a.m. on March 2, Luther Fogt was preparing to teach his sophomore English class when "all at once things started to shake," he recalls. "Plaster fell and desks were knocked over, but nobody got hurt. Before you could do anything, it was all over. Took about 10 seconds."

Fogt is 90 now. He greets you at the front door with a walker. He has a big wad of cotton jammed in his left ear and he's wearing glasses thicker than manhole covers. But he still lives in one of the small houses that hug both sides of Main Street, and he still has vivid memories of the day his students went scurrying out of the old schoolhouse.

"We didn't let them go back in. We took all the coats and stuff out to them and put them on the buses and sent them home."

The outside wall of his classroom was pulled several inches away from the rest of the room. Although the school's big chimney was damaged -- as were about a third of the chimneys in town -- it didn't fall, which undoubtedly prevented fatalities. Anna had gotten a 5.0 shake, big enough to be felt all the way to Akron and beyond. But that was merely a taste of things to come.

The next day, officials decided to move classes to two local churches until the school could be repaired. The arrangement worked fine -- until the early morning hours of March 9.

At about 12:45 a.m., Fogt was asleep when his bed began to sway back and forth. Once again, the shaking stopped even before he could figure out what to do. But this quake was considerably bigger -- a whopping 5.5. It ruined the two churches, finished off the damaged school (which was only 10 years old) and heavily damaged all the other public buildings. The town's businesses were trashed as well, with storefronts shattered and merchandise scattered about. Every chimney in town was toppled -- including some that had been repaired after the first shake.

Suddenly the smartest guy in Anna was physician Delphis Milliette. The good doctor, a member of the school board, had successfully lobbied his colleagues to buy earthquake insurance after the completion of a school remodeling project. That was an unconventional move in those days, and he needed all his powers of persuasion.

Milliette had done his homework. Spurred by a 1931 tremor that knocked medicine bottles off his shelves, he had researched the situation and learned that Anna was sitting near the long, precarious Grenville Front, a series of faults dating to prehistoric times. Geologists say the town is particularly vulnerable because it also is centered over a 400-foot-deep buried valley formed by the ancient Teays River. Glaciers later filled in the valley, creating the equivalent of an echo chamber for seismic waves.

When the second 1937 quake flattened Anna School, the board had paid only $90 in premiums. But it collected $30,000, a major boost for the $165,000 reconstruction.

While the new school was going up, the townsfolk pulled together and turned 15 private homes into makeshift classrooms. Kids would take a class in one house, then walk next door for the next. Main Street was closed to traffic for the rest of the school year.

"The superintendent set up his office in the doctor's office on the corner," says Fogt. "We had had a public-address system in the old building, so we set that up and ran wires to the various houses so he could talk to us and we could talk back to him."

The following year, leftover barracks from the Civilian Conservation Corps in nearby Sidney were trucked to the grounds of the former school. Throughout that year, the 350 students studied in four rows of barracks heated by coal stoves. Most kids thought it was fun -- except for the outhouses out back.

AKRON RUMBLES

Anna's residents weren't the only ones shaken up 63 years ago. A headline in the March 9 Akron Beacon Journal read: "AKRON IS JARRED BY SECOND QUAKE IN WEEK." This one "spread apprehension among hundreds of persons awakened by the jolt. . . . Dishes were rattled and pictures swung awry as the earth's crust quivered at 12:46 this morning." A patient at Children's Hospital asked a nurse to look under his bed because "someone is shaking it." The shock waves were felt all the way to Canada.

Anna's flatlands do a marvelous job of concealing the chaos beneath its surface. Much of Ohio is the same way. Unlike California, where you can easily eyeball long portions of the San Andreas fault, almost all of Ohio's faults are hidden. And plenty of trouble spots are lurking in places other than Anna.

Says the College of Wooster's Varga: "There's lots of old faults and other kinds of structures that formed way back in the earth's past, and those apparently are being reactivated. Much of North America is under compression today, northeast to southwest. It's kind of like a vise grip. . . .

"In places like Ohio and the New Madrid Fault Zone, every now and then the crust will pop. It's an event like that that occurs inexplicably -- and suddenly you get a New Madrid kind of earthquake."

A "New Madrid kind of earthquake" is the kind that would send shivers down your spine -- if you lived long enough. When geologists invoke the words New Madrid, they're talking about an event that would devastate a multistate region.

Get this: The biggest quake in the history of the continental United States was not the 1906 monster in San Francisco. The king of American shakers took place in 1811 in a little town in Missouri.

The village of New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) was the epicenter of a quake so big that it literally changed the landscape. A new, 18-mile-long by 5-mile-wide lake was created in western Tennessee. Ten-foot waves roared through the Mississippi River. A parade ground in South Carolina dropped two inches. Chimneys toppled in Cincinnati. Church bells rang in Boston.

Obviously, CNN wasn't around to document everything, but we do have plenty of letters written by eyewitnesses. And those letters uniformly describe a thunderous noise . . . the spewing of sand and stone from gashes in the earth . . . the odor of sulfur . . . bizarre hissing sounds . . . acres of trees snapping off at the base . . . and the ground swaying so violently that people couldn't stay on their feet. As one observer put it, the ground "was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea."

The mammoth eruption that took place at 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1811, was only the first in a 3-month series of hundreds of quakes that included two other blockbusters.

Because seismometers wouldn't be invented for another 80 years (and wouldn't reach their modern form until the 1960s), the magnitude of the New Madrid quake can't be pinpointed. Estimates range as high as 8.7, although most experts put it somewhere in the low 8s.

For perspective: Even if the New Madrid quake was only an 8.0, it was 1,000 times stronger than the Painesville quake of 1986.

Geologists don't believe the ground beneath Ohio could ever compete with New Madrid. Then again, what scientists don't know about earthquakes could fill the Grand Canyon.

Wooster's Varga has three college degrees, including a Ph.D. But when it comes to earthquakes, he is almost clueless. "In many ways," he admits, "we know less about predicting earthquakes than we thought we did 20 years ago."

Predicting quakes is, of course, the ultimate goal, the "brass ring," as Varga puts it. But the ring may be impossible to grasp. The biggest problem is that the earth's crust varies so much from place to place that the precursor events -- things that might tip us off to an impending quake -- are radically different, too. "It's probably unlikely that we're going to develop a predictive tool that's going to work in California, in Ohio, in Greece, wherever."

Truth be told, an 1816 letter describing the New Madrid quakes as "the awful visitation of Providence" may come as close to explaining intraplate quakes as today's geologists.

NEW PROJECT

The latest attempt to uncover answers in Ohio kicked off early last year. It was made possible by the completion of the mapping project that showed Ohio with a higher risk of seismic activity than previously believed; that qualified the state for a bigger share of earthquake-related money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The result is Ohio-Seis, a network of 15 seismic stations manned by volunteers around the state, mostly at colleges.

The stations can record not only Ohio quakes but anything 6.0 or bigger anywhere in the world.

Wooster and the University of Toledo were the first on board. Among other sites up and running are Lakeland Community College in Kirtland and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Several more are planned for the state's primary hot spots, the west and northeast.

Eventually, OhioSeis hopes to offer the public instant access to seismograph readings via the Internet, as well as feed continuous readings to the state's Earthquake Information Center at Alum Creek State Park, just north of Columbus. Thus far, various hardware and software glitches have prevented that from happening. But the stations have been recording data regularly and have already been able to better pinpoint the locations of Ohio tremors. Eventually, that increased accuracy will enable geologists to better map Ohio's hidden faults.

As government programs go, this one is dirt-cheap (pun intended). The colleges fork out about $2,000 for a computer and monitor and the state pays $3,500 for the seismometer, says Hansen, the state's earthquake guru.

As senior geologist for the Ohio Geological Survey, Hansen has spent the last 31 years trying to spread the word that "earthquake" and "Ohio" are not mutually exclusive. The 1986 jolt made his job somewhat easier. Still, he thinks most of us are underestimating our risk.

"I try to walk this fine line: I don't want to excite or panic people because I think the chances of a major, devastating earthquake in Ohio have a very low probability. But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't have any earthquakes that could cause significant damage."

Like everybody else, he's mostly guessing. The problem with figuring out Ohio's earthquake potential, Hansen points out, is that we're trying to study events that don't happen often; that happen in different places; and that aren't directly observable because they happen miles below the surface.

More clues could be unearthed by systematically drilling deep holes and extracting core samples, but that is cost-prohibitive. Researchers have been limited to examining core samples provided occasionally by commercial oil- and gas-well drillers.

So the mysteries lurking in Ohio's basement are likely to remain mysteries for the foreseeable future -- unless, of course, we suddenly get a loud, rumbling annoucement to the contrary.

As the state's point man on earthquakes, part of Hansen's job is simply fighting human nature. "If it hasn't happened in your lifetime," he says, "you tend to discount it as a possibility."

Few people in Anna discount it. Not even the most hard-nosed of residents. Not even Jake Boyer.

STAYING PUT

Willis "Jake" Boyer is sitting in the Apple Valley Cafe, a smoky truck stop just across the I-75 bridge from the Sunoco station where his father's 80-acre farm used to be. He's wearing a John Deere cap, a flannel shirt, large bifocals and thick sideburns that extend to the very bottom of his LBJ ears.

Boyer has the straight-ahead demeanor that a fellow tends to develop while living nearly all of his 72 years in a town so small you barely need a phone book. Sure, he says, he'd be delighted to tell a visitor about Ohio's version of The Big One, which roared through town when he was in third grade. He'll tell you all about the thick dust flying inside his school, about the toppled chimneys, about the twisted tombstones. And he'll be glad to tell you how everybody simply picked things up and got on with their lives -- especially the school kids. "You don't pay no attention to nothing in the third grade," he says. "Not even catastrophes."

But Jake Boyer very much wants you to get the facts right. The tale isn't worth telling, he suggests, if it isn't told right. Just because his formal education stopped when he headed off to the Navy after 10th grade, that doesn't mean he doesn't cherish the written word and the power of accurate information. "I kind of declared war on ignorance by reading," he volunteers after regaling you with a 10-minute analysis of the career of John Quincy Adams.

Boyer wears a ring he crafted out of a cement nail "to remind me where I came from" -- namely, from a family of honest, hardworking folks. Folks who wouldn't dream of leaving just because of a couple geological throat-clearings.

"I wouldn't leave no place for an earthquake," he declares. "If that was the case, every time there was a fire or something, people'd be jumping around like frogs.

"If you get scared of the elements, you don't got no right to live."

Spoken with the blunt assurance of a man who has survived the Great Depression and the big war and jobs as a farmhand, truck driver, railroad worker, electrician and road-crew boss.

But even Jake Boyer is not totally self-reliant. Like almost everybody else in Anna, he carries earthquake insurance.

"The thing about an earthquake," he says, "is you don't know when it's coming. Sooner or later, it's going to happen."

On that point, the verdict is unanimous.