Tennessee Warned to Take Earthquake Threat Seriously

September 27, 2010

Cities and states have improved their disaster readiness since the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, but authorities must keep stressing emergency preparedness to reduce complacency among the general public, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said in Memphis Friday.

Honore, who shepherded New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath five years ago, spoke Friday to first responders and emergency personnel at a disaster preparedness expo in Memphis. He’s visited Tennessee and other states since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast five years ago, relaying lessons about disaster readiness.

“There’s still a sense of complacency,” Honore told The Associated Press before his remarks to the group. “I do think our states and counties have gotten better since 9/11 and Katrina.

“The challenge remains getting the general population ready, that this can happen in our town,” he added. “Just because it hasn’t happened in our lifetime doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

Honore said emergency officials must constantly reach out to the public about threats from storms, earthquakes, and man-made disasters. The poor, disabled and elderly are the most vulnerable because they tend to rely on others for disaster assistance, he said.

“It has to be a repetitive message,” Honore said. “If we talked about preparedness like we talk about football, people would get the message.”

One of the biggest risks facing Memphis and the surrounding area is earthquakes. Memphis sits in the New Madrid seismic zone, which stretches from Arkansas to southern Illinois, including parts of West Tennessee, eastern Missouri, and western Kentucky.

Between 150 and 200 earthquakes are recorded each year in the New Madrid region, though most are too small to be felt, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Some of the largest earthquakes to strike the continental United States, in the winter of 1811-1812, occurred in the New Madrid zone.

A fact sheet entitled “Earthquake Hazard in the Heart of the Homeland” shows there’s a 7 percent to 10 percent probability that an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 to 8 on seismic scales will strike in the New Madrid region in the next 50 years. The probability jumps to 25 percent to 40 percent for a magnitude 6 earthquake or larger.

Earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 to 8 can cause major damage over a large area. Magnitude 6 earthquakes can cause serious damage in areas close to the earthquake’s location.

In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, emergency officials talk daily about seismic monitoring and earthquake readiness, from reviewing building and construction code compliance to the best ways to respond to massive damage, said Bob Nations, director of the county’s emergency management agency.

“Our first responder community in this region is highly competent,” Nations said. “There should be a high level of confidence in our first response community, in terms of being able to more than adequately respond to life safety issues.”

Seismic activity in the New Madrid region is monitored at the Center for Earthquake Research Information at the University of Memphis. Charles Langston, the center’s director, said there have been more small earthquakes recently in Arkansas.

There’s no way to predict exactly when a big earthquake will strike, but the chances are real.

“As a geologist and geophysicist, yes, it’s inevitable,” Langston said. “It could happen tomorrow, it could happen 100 years from now.

“If you get a large enough earthquake with enough damage, no matter how prepared everybody is, there would still be difficulties here,” Langston said.

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