By Michael Fitzgerald
It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee. A quarter of a million people are homeless. The Memphis airport – the country’s biggest air terminal for packages – goes off-line. Major oil and gas pipelines across Tennessee rupture, causing shortages in the Northeast. In Missouri, another 15,000 people are hurt or dead. Cities and towns throughout the central U.S. lose power and water for months. Losses stack up to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Fortunately, this magnitude 7.7 temblor is not real but rather a scenario imagined by the Mid-America Earthquake Center and the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. The goal of their 2008 analysis was to plan for a modern recurrence of quakes that happened along the New Madrid fault more than 200 years ago, in 1811 and 1812.
No one alive has experienced a major earthquake in the Midwest, yet geologists say it’s only a matter of time. That puts a lot of uncertainty on disaster officials. Their earthquake precautions – quake-resistant building codes, for example – have never been reality tested. Some question if enough has been done to strengthen existing buildings, schools and other infrastructure. It is difficult to prepare for a geological catastrophe the public cannot see and has never experienced.
“We mostly react to disasters, and it’s been extremely rare that we get ahead of things,” said Claire Rubin, a disaster response specialist in Arlington, Va. “A lot of hard problems don’t get solved. They get moved around and passed along.”
Steven L. Lueker is among disaster response officials who worry about the New Madrid fault and another fault to the north, in the Wabash Valley. He’s the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County in Southern Illinois, and he rattles off likely impact statistics. One of the most important: The New Madrid fault is expected to generate a large-scale earthquake within the next 50 years.
“I may not be here when it happens,” said Lueker. “Or it may happen while we’re talking. You don’t know.”
When it does happen, Lueker said Mount Vernon, the Jefferson County seat, likely will be a staging area for support flowing into Tennessee and Missouri – unless the Mount Vernon airport itself is too damaged. He doesn’t – can’t – know.
By Michael Fitzgerald
- CNHI Special Projects
Is Kentucky all shook up?
Shortly after noon on Saturday, Nov. 10, the ground shook all over the Tri-County region.
Preparing for mid-America earthquake
It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee.
Audio: How can we better prepare for tornadoes?
An NPR broadcast examines the question of how communities can better prepare for tornadoes like the one that struck Moore, Okla. on Monday. The broadcast features commentary from Michael Fitzgerald, who reported a five-part disaster series for the CNHI News Service.
- Photos: Aftermath of massive tornado in Moore Storm victims were pulled from the rubble and residents began surveying the damage late Monday and early Tuesday in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, where a powerful tornado destroyed entire neighborhoods and left dozens dead.
More options, several ways to be alerted
Getting the word out about severe weather and other disasters has come a long way from the Cold War era of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Technology speeds disaster alerts, response
Caitria O’Neill remembers her reaction to hearing tornado warnings on June 1, 2011. She went to the grocery store, she said, “because I live in Massachusetts, and we don’t get tornadoes.”
The Big One: Preparing for mid-America earthquake
It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee. A quarter of a million people are homeless.
VIDEO: How sequestration could affect US flood warning system
Oregon and Idaho each had to shut down three water gauges due to automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration. Watch how Idaho relies on these water gauges, from tracking drought conditions to determining stream levels for salmon.
Preparation now is priceless, when seconds count later
For most of us, we don’t think about disaster preparation until after it strikes. We read, see and hear the vivid images of destruction and suffering that plays in print, online, on TV and on radio. Those moments can stay seared in our minds for days or forever.
Veterans of tornadoes balance preparedness and practicality
Few things in nature are less predictable than a tornado. They can form quickly. They strike weirdly, leveling one building while leaving its neighbor untouched. They can fling a car a half-mile and turn a piece of lumber into a wall-piercing missile.
- More CNHI Special Projects Headlines
- Is Kentucky all shook up?