Robert Latham remembers the scare in 1989 when climatologist Iben Browning predicted a major earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone centered in southern Missouri.
Browning specified Dec. 2 or 3, 1990, as the most likely days in a forecast hyped in the media that raised broad alarm.
No temblor occurred on those days or thereafter.
Browning’s “science” may have been illusory, but the threat is real, and it includes DeSoto County, said Latham, Mississippi’s Emergency Management director.
The former Tate County EMA chief is joining the local first-response community and the DeSoto Board of Supervisors in urging that earthquake preparedness begin at home.
Their message also is timed with the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut awareness drill on Tuesday at 10:15 a.m., and the bicentennial of the 1811-12 series of powerful earthquakes along the New Madrid with a magnitude as high as 8.0. More than a million people across Mississippi and eight other states are expected to participate
“Our greatest concern, as with any emergency, is saving lives, which begins with individual and family preparedness,” Latham said. “For earthquakes, personal preparedness starts with citizens learning to `drop, cover and hold on,’ as well as having a family plan so you know where everyone is once it’s over.”
The New Madrid zone stretches 40 miles wide and 200 miles long, taking in North Mississippi, Northeast Arkansas, West Tennessee, and parts of Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.
Bobby Storey, DeSoto emergency chief, said response plans include scattering assets, such as rescue equipment and vehicles, across the region so that resources will be available anywhere.
“The biggest things at first would be dealing with ruptured gas lines, high-voltage lines down and broken water mains,” he said. “Our manpower for teams would be increased because no utilities would be available.
“We learned that from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We had to cut trees and clear roads starting from Jackson to get down to the Gulf Coast. For the first 24 hours, we were still pushing to get down there.”
Bob Nations, director of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness, said DeSoto is linked with his county, Crittenden in eastern Arkansas and Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale in West Tennessee in a regional Homeland Security partnership.
The “capacity to respond” is there, said Latham, but more lives will be saved if ordinary citizens join with such partnerships “to build the culture of preparedness.”
Storey suggested people start by checking hazards at home:
Fasten shelves securely to walls; place large or heavy objects on lower shelves; store breakable items in low, closed cabinets with latches; hang heavy pictures or mirrors away from beds or anywhere people sit; and brace overhead light fixtures.
Other ways: Identify safe places indoors and outdoors; educate yourself and family members; keep disaster supplies – including prescribed medications – on hand; and develop an emergency communication plan.
“It can be as simple as keeping a pair of shoes by your bed,” Storey said. “If you have to run, there’s no telling what’s waiting outside.”
“We want to go to the schools with our message. Kids are the best way, because they’ll go home and get after mom and dad, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?”‘
County Supervisor Lee Caldwell, who lived in quake-prone California in the 1980s, recalled having emergency kits “at our home and in our cars, and we had a plan on where to go.”
The U.S. Geological Survey said there is a 7 to 10 percent chance or probability that a quake of 7.0 magnitude or greater – capable of catastrophic damage – will occur in the zone within the next 50 years.
The probability of a magnitude-6.0 or greater quake in the same period is between 26 and 46 percent.
In a 2009 Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded scenario, scientists pondering a simultaneous major rupture of all three zone segments estimated 86,000 casualties with 3,500 fatalities. The figures included 715,000 damaged buildings and 7.2 million people displaced, with 2 million of those seeking shelter, primarily due to the lack of utility services.
A more recent modeling by the University of Illinois’ Mid-America Earthquake Center forecast 3,500 damaged bridges, and severe congestion on major interstates in and around Memphis. Some 42,000 personnel would be required for nearly 1,500 search-and-rescue teams.
The zone, say some scientists, appears to be about 30 years overdue for a magnitude-6.3 quake because the last quake in this range occurred more than 100 years ago at Charleston, Mo., in 1895.
The strongest reported quake in Mississippi occurred in 1931, a magnitude-4.6 temblor in Tallahatchie County that damaged buildings and toppled chimneys.
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