March 1, 1999

The Fault lies not in our Stars, but in the Earth Below

John McGuire
Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Page: E1

* Earthquakes are a hot topic again, and that's good because residents along the New Madrid fault need to be aware of what lurks beneath.

At 11:02 a.m., Nov. 9, 1968, the Arch bounced up and down like a stainless-steel monument on a pogo stick.

"Does it do this all the time?" a young tourist asked a National Park Service guide.

Guide Freddie L. Lambert, standing at the top -- 630 feet above the ground -- with more than 50 tourists rubber-necking out the observation windows, wanted to do one thing -- avoid panic.

"It sways," said Lambert, trying to act calm.

"There was a fast vibration," he said later. "Then the motion tapered off, and the Arch began to sway in normal fashion from east to west. The whole thing lasted about 40 seconds."

At 11:03 a.m., about 12 feet of the sidewalk in front of the Apartment Management Co., 4454 Olive Street, was partially buried under chunks of shattered bricks and large pieces of concrete that fell from the building's fifth floor. Fortunately, it was Saturday morning; the streets were empty.

Not long after the shaking and quaking stopped, the St. Louis Police switchboard received an emergency call for the one serious injury to result from all this. An 11-year-old was found unconscious in the yard next to his house at 2410 South 11th Street. Bricks and debris from a chimney had fallen on him, and he was admitted to old City Hospital with head injuries.

Nov. 9, 1968, remains the most significant date of this century for scientists who study the New Madrid earthquake seismic area, a fault zone with fissure systems running into Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

That earthquake more than 30 years ago at a magnitude 5.5 on the Richter scale -- moderate in the seismic scheme of things -- was the most widely felt earthquake in the United States (excluding Alaska) in 71 years. That's because shockwaves from a New Madrid quake travel farther than similar seismic activity in California's San Andreas fault system because the underlying earth differs. New Madrid runs deep, along rock beds that are not as fractured as the San Andreas fault network.

"There hasn't been a bigger quake since (in the New Madrid zone), and it may have been the largest this century," said Arch C. Johnston, director of research for the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis.

Johnston is scheduled to be in town Tuesday for the second earthquake conference to be held in St. Louis in recent weeks.

It seems that earthquakes -- especially in the New Madrid zone -- are a hot topic again.

Johnston will speak at an earthquake conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Union Station on the New Madrid zone's biggest story -- the sequence of horrendous earthquakes that struck the mid-Mississippi River Valley in 1811-12, back when the Mississippi was the country's western frontier. The two largest quakes probably exceeded in size any quake in the western United States.

Had these quakes hit a century later, millions of people would have been at risk, many of them would have died and the property damage in St. Louis and Memphis would have been unbelievable.

A fictional sense of what could have been is the theme of a new novel by Peter Hernon, "8.4" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95). Hernon, a Post-Dispatch reporter and editor, relied a great deal on scientists such as Johnston, and St. Louis University's Robert B. Herrmann, a professor of geophysics, for the scientific underpinning of "8.4," which a reviewer noted was "dense with scientific terminology and lore," including seismic wave data, geophysics, tectonic stresses and elastic strain energy. nd tilted toward the river at a 45-degree angle.

Johnston, chuckling, said he thought Hernon's damage accounts were a little exaggerated, and he tried to talk him into making the big quake an 8.1 instead of an 8.4, but "there's a lot of good science in there," he said of the book.

For Hernon, writing "8.4" reawakened the sense that we're standing and sitting, walking and sleeping, on an earthquake zone with a hellish history. It was a bit unsettling, said Hernon.

"This is going to happen," he said. "Whether it's in 20 years, or 50 or more, a magnitude 7 is going to hit, and it's going to cause some pretty rough damage. The important thing is -- get a damn earthquake insurance policy."

Hernon traveled to Memphis on three occasions to interview Johnston and members of the earthquake center, besides calling on scientists at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory, and St. Louis University, where the Jesuits pioneered seismic research.

"St. Louis University Jesuits sort of adopted seismology early in this century," said Johnston. "We're sort of the new kids on the block. They had the first seismograph there outside of California in the early 1900s."

Otto Nuttli, a St. Louis U. geophysicist who died in 1988, was "the father of New Madrid zone's modern research," said Johnston. His intensity maps, based on eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports, show the wide reach of the New Madrid quake system, named for the Missouri Bootheel town of the same name.

The shock waves for a magnitude 5 can be illustrated as a large splotch, stretching across the middle and eastern part of the United States to Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Iowa, the Deep South, the Carolinas and Georgia.

So periodically, people in this region are reminded of this bad thing that lurks below. The most recent big scare came nine years ago when a man named Iben Browning frightened the bejesus out of a lot of people with his prediction that there was a 50-50 chance for a large earthquake along the New Madrid system.

But think about it.

Driving to work, traveling under double-decker highway overpasses -- and you're on a bridge to boot -- really brings it home ... What if?

This is earthquake country. But most of us don't think about it until someone like Browning comes along and rattles our psyches. Arch Johnston says the Browning prediction caused an uproar because scientists have tried to ignore the New Madrid zone for too long.

"In California, Browning wouldn't have had a chance" because of all the research and studies done there, said Johnston. Now, scientists in this region are meeting and telling businesses, governments and school systems to prepare for the worst.

Johnston's wife, Jill Stevens Johnston, also a scientist at the Memphis center, was here last month at an earthquake seminar sponsored by the American Red Cross. She probably summed up the situation of earthquakes and people as well as anyone when she said: "The mentality is that it really isn't going to happen to us."

So when someone like Hernon writes a piece of fiction about the incredible destructive potential of the New Madrid zone, you can only hope that it bears little resemblance to reality, although it makes you wonder.

"This century, New Madrid has been a good neighbor," said Arch Johnston, noting that the worst thing was the moderate quake in 1968.

Of course, no one knows what to expect in the coming millennium. "Nobody really knows," said Charles Ammon, a St. Louis University geophysicist, because such predictions are wrapped in uncertainty. Which make earthquakes unlike other natural disasters -- where satellite technology warns us about approaching severe weather, and floods and blizzards can also be charted.

Earthquakes can hit on a sunny day -- and they blindside us.

The Web site for St. Louis University's earthquake center is

(1) Photo - Broken masonry littered the sidewalk at 4459 Olive Street following the 5.5 magnitude quake of Nov. 9, 1968, the most widely felt earthquake in the U.S. in this century.

(2) Color Photo - Peter Hernon based his novel partly on the huge quakes of 1811-12. (Photo of "8.4" book cover.)

(3) Photo - The earth parted near Chester, Ill. in 1955, leaving this four-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep fissure after another New Madrid earthquake jolt

Copyright 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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