Most experts believe it’s just a matter of time before another big earthquake strikes along the New Madrid fault line, and Gov. Jay Nixon says Missouri and neighboring states need to be ready.
Nixon on Feb. 19 convened a panel of a dozen state and local officials who are on the front lines of disasters. The panel of emergency managers, law enforcement officials and faith-based leaders gathered in New Madrid – at the epicenter of the fault line that runs through southeast Missouri and into parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.
“Everyone in southeast Missouri knows we’re sitting in one of the most active seismic zones in the world,” Nixon said. “A major earthquake is something every family, every business and every community, especially in this region, needs to be ready for.”
The governor has designated February as Earthquake Awareness Month in Missouri, but the disaster in Haiti already has served notice to the region about what can happen if a major quake hits.
The New Madrid fault line is highly active, producing hundreds of small earthquakes every year. It produced a series of three devastating quakes in 1811 and 1812, now believed to be in the range of magnitude 8.0, that were so strong they caused the Mississippi River to flow backward and rang church bells in New England.
There wasn’t widespread death or destruction 200 years ago because the region was mostly wilderness at the time. Today, millions could be affected, including residents of St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. Both cities sit roughly 150 miles from New Madrid.
Missouri state geologist Joe Gillman said an earthquake the magnitude of the 1811 and 1812 quakes is expected to happen just once every 500 years. But a moderate quake with a magnitude 6.0 to 6.5 is expected to happen every 90 years, and the last one along the New Madrid fault was in the late 1800s.
“We are due, if not overdue, for a moderate-sized earthquake,” Gillman said.
A 6.0-6.5 earthquake could devastate infrastructure such as power lines and underground water and wastewater pipes, and many buildings could crumble, Gillman said.
Although this region of the Midwest hasn’t seen a devastating quake for nearly 200 years, it has had more than its share of disasters.
Deadly tornadoes swept through Kentucky and Tennessee in March 2008. Flooding in 2008 caused significant damage along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Missouri and Illinois. And ice storms in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas last winter downed thousands of power poles and left some people without electricity for several weeks.
Emergency responders say lessons learned from those disasters would help if an earthquake hits. Responders have been well-versed on seeking federal help, for example. They’ve learned that more needs to be done to provide shelter for people with special needs, even for displaced pets – many people won’t evacuate if their dogs and cats aren’t accounted for.
The police chief in nearby Sikeston, Drew Juden, said last year’s ice storm was a “wake-up call” for the region to beef up its emergency supplies and to have backup emergency equipment at the ready. Emergency responders have learned that in remote areas like this, it can take days or even weeks to get supplies after a disaster.
Missouri and surrounding states have taken some steps to prepare. Many bridges and major buildings are now built to withstand a big quake, such as the new Bill Emerson Bridge over the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau, about 50 miles north of New Madrid. Older hospitals and other major buildings as far away as St. Louis have been retrofitted to give them a better chance of withstanding a big quake.
Last fall, crews in Tennessee were retrofitting the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that connects Memphis and West Memphis, Ark.
But many other buildings, bridges and roadways remain vulnerable. In Arkansas, some have called for a new Mississippi River span at Blytheville because the two nearest bridges are not prepared to withstand a powerful quake.
Nixon said that even if the odds say another major devastating quake is decades or centuries away, the stakes are too high not to be ready.
“We’ll probably all live our lives and not see that – but we could,” Nixon said.
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