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New Madrid fault rumbling again

Another Warning - Another Arkansas Earthquake

Sam Penny

Sunday's moderate earthquake in northern Arkansas on the New Madrid Fault warns us that the fault will someday fracture like it did in 1811 and 1812. The US Geological Survey says the odds are one in ten that will happen in the next fifty years. When the earthquake happens, it could destroy 10% of the US GDP and kill or injure hundreds of thousands. More attention, planning, and preparation must be given to this worst natural disaster that could tear the heart out of our country.

(PRWEB) May 3, 2005 -- Sunday morning, May 1, at 7:37:32 am, yet another moderate earthquake struck on the New Madrid Fault. It measured magnitude 4.1, the same as the warning of just over two months ago on February 10. Once again seismic forces ripped a fracture the size of a 160-acre farm through the basement rock, this time 10 kilometers below the Little River drainage, 6 miles west-southwest of Dell, Arkansas. Residents of Keiser a few miles south reported the shaking intensity in their town as high as level VI, strong enough to cause some damage.

Residents in six states reported feeling the shaking – from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Nashville, Tennessee, and from Carbondale, Illinois, to Tupelo, Mississippi, and even folks in Alabama. Some in sophisticated Memphis, 50 miles away, wondered if the time for the Big One had come when the level IV shaking began.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone, stretching from east central Arkansas to the southern tip of Illinois, is a major source of concern to the US Geological Survey and FEMA. The fault zone fractured in 1811 and 1812, producing a series of giant earthquakes felt across what is now the eastern half of the United States. The heaving of the land created ten new lakes in the Mississippi valley, tilted the land, and forced the Mississippi River to run backwards. It reportedly rang church bells in Boston, over a thousand miles away—the strongest earthquake to strike the contiguous 48 States in recorded history.

The USGS says there is a one in ten chance of another giant earthquake on the New Madrid Fault in the next fifty years. Most seismologists agree that a giant New Madrid earthquake is eventually inevitable. It is only a matter of time before an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, roughly the size of the first earthquake that struck December 16, 1811, once again fractures the New Madrid.

In the novel Memphis 7.9, the fictional Dr. Paul Kenton reported on the first fictional earthquake, “At 9:12 this morning a magnitude 4.4 earthquake occurred at a depth of 11.3 kilometers with an epicenter near Dell, Arkansas. While this temblor is stronger than usual, events like this are a common occurrence on the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and there is nothing to worry about.”

“There is nothing to worry about”—words to live in infamy, words some continue to use today.

How Bad Could It Be—What Is The Risk?

An estimated five thousand white settlers and black slaves could be found along the Mississippi River in 1811, and less than a million resided west of the Appalachian Mountains. These hardy frontiersmen and their families lived close to the earth in the forests and along the riverbanks in log cabins or on their boats. Eleven deaths were officially reported, but some historians estimate that as many as a thousand souls perished along the river during the two months of shaking. The fatality rate in the fracture zone could have been 10% or more.

The USGS and FEMA have published studies to estimate the expected shaking intensity from earthquakes of various magnitudes along the New Madrid Fault. When those estimates are cross-multiplied by the US census, the results are staggering. Today, an estimated 32,000,000 people live in the 300,000-square-mile area surrounding the fault that would be at risk of significant damage from a giant earthquake of magnitude 7.9 on the New Madrid.

In a worst-case scenario, the death toll would be 20,000 and grow to 80,000 if major flooding resulted from the shaking. Half a million people would be injured, and as many as 10,000,000 could be left homeless. And to make matters worse, the 99% who survive—and are faced with bringing about the recovery of the United States—could find that 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and 20% of its shipping capacity had been wiped out in the space of 13 minutes, the time it takes for the seismic waves to spread across the eastern half of our country from an epicenter on the New Madrid.

The seismic events of February and May in Arkansas tell us once again that the New Madrid Seismic Zone is a very active fault. It is only a matter of time before another giant earthquake will once again rip through the center of the United States. There is no way to stop the earthquake, but we can—and must—reduce the potential damage.

Preparation and Planning Make a Difference.

A lesson for our country to learn is that by becoming aware and preparing and planning, we can make a difference. Too often, local leaders and business interests downplay the danger, unwilling to invest in a safe future even when the risk is the destruction of our country’s way of life. The human race can significantly reduce the level of the tragedy associated with such a natural disaster, but not by sticking its collective head in the sand.

Pro-active leadership is required. Support of the seismological and structural research efforts of the Universities, the public education efforts of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, and the preparedness and mitigation efforts of the state and local Emergency Management Agencies is vital. More funding from the government and business is needed. Public awareness of what the future holds is essential.

Five years ago some scientists wondered, “What would happen if a giant tsunami should strike in the Indian Ocean?” Now they know. Had the governments been proactive at that time, the toll would have been much less than the 325,000 who have died so far.

Now is the time for everyone across the country to realize the stake they have in how well the people in the New Madrid damage zone plan and prepare for this inevitable event. True, it may not happen in our lifetime, but what if it does? Now is the time to become proactive in the central United States.

Mother Nature gives us only so many warnings. After May 1 we have two less than at the beginning of the year on the New Madrid.