Earthquake Expert Warns of Economic Damage

August 15, 2008

From cracked oil and natural gas pipelines to contaminated public water supplies, the nation’s economy could be the biggest casualty of the next major Midwest earthquake, an earthquake expert warned.

Geologic engineering professor Dave Rogers of Missouri University of Science and Technology outlined the grim scenario to an audience of scientists, military officers and emergency responders from five of the eight states in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 7 to 10 percent chance in the next 50 years of an earthquake similar in intensity to the New Madrid quakes that rocked Memphis, St. Louis and other cities hundreds of miles away nearly 200 years ago.

Those odds increase to greater than 50 percent for an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater over the next five decades — and such smaller quakes could still cripple Mississippi River barge traffic, mangle interstate highways, sever fiber optic cables, lead to fuel shortages and otherwise turn the mid-American economy upside down, Rogers suggested.

“The economic consequences are horrid,” said Rogers, who has assessed responses to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Northridge earthquake in California, among other disasters. “The shock factor of having unavailable fuel would be unprecedented.”

Rogers’ remarks came at a meeting intended to unite the scientists who study the still poorly understood central U.S. earthquakes with the county health workers, emergency management crews, highway planners and others whose expertise usually isn’t tapped until after a disaster strikes.

“We learned this from Hurricane Katrina. All the agencies — federal, state and local– need to communicate better,” said conference coordinator Emitt Witt, director of the federal government’s Mid-Continent Geographic Sciences Center, which is based in Rolla, Mo.

“We’ve brought together two groups that typically don’t work together: the science and engineering community and the response and recovery communities.”

A hazards analysis offered by Amr Elnashai, director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois, built upon the scenarios described by Rogers.

An earthquake of 7.7 magnitude along the New Madrid fault line, 7.1 magnitude along the Wabash Valley fault or 5.9 along the East Tennessee fault zone could cause economic damage as high as $60 billion in Tennessee, $45 billion in Kentucky and $40 billion in Missouri, he told the crowd of nearly 300.

In Arkansas, casualty estimates would reach 14,000, and rise to 60,000 in Tennessee, Elnashai said.

The most recent large New Madrid quake, estimated at magnitude 6.5, struck in 1895 near Charleston, Mo. More recently, an April temblor over the Wabash fault zone in Illinois measured 5.2 but was felt as far away as Indianapolis, Chicago, even Pittsburgh.

Such lesser events may give vulnerable residents a false sense of comfort, Witt acknowledged, and perhaps help minimize the urgency of strengthening building codes, reinforcing highways and bridges and making other infrastructure improvements.

“People know that there’s a threat of a major earthquake here, but the actual severity or impacts of that are probably not well understood,” he said. “Some worry that being a little too concerned over an earthquake that happens once every 500 years is going to affect property values, or affect progress.”

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