The New Madrid will redraw our landscape

By Oliver Staley
September 11, 2005

When the Big One hits Memphis, there will be no warning.

Centuries in the making, the massive earthquake will ripple out of the New Madrid fault and convulse the ground for hundreds of miles in every direction.

The earth will heave and buckle, rolling in waves and shaking violently. The noise will be deafening as thousands of tons of rock and stone scrape and grind.

Adding to the din will be the shattering windows and cascading furniture, the car and house alarms and the screams.

Structures will begin to collapse. Particularly vulnerable are older buildings made of brick and stone, which are brittle and have little ability to flex and bend. Many office and apartment buildings Downtown will fail, as will many of the Memphis City Schools, some of which date to the first decade of the 1900s.

Downtown Memphis

Newer homes of wood construction will warp, making doors unusable. Chimneys will collapse, plunging through roofs and into houses.

Outside, roads will crack, bridges will collapse and natural gas lines may rupture.

Fires will break out, fed by the gas leaks. Some will burn out of control, as firefighters, even if they can reach the fires over destroyed roads, will have no water pressure for their hoses.

In some areas built on moist, sandy soil, such as Mud Island and along the Wolf River, a condition called liquefaction may take place. The sand will compress due to the shaking, forcing water up and out and reducing the topsoil to something resembling quicksand. Entire subdivisions could slide away.

Because of the soft ground beneath us, geologists believe the shaking will reverberate far longer than a similar quake in California and it may take minutes for the earth to quiet.

The aftermath will be devastating. Studies and computer models estimate that there could be thousands of deaths if the quake strikes during the day, when more people are in vulnerable buildings. Many times that number will be injured, although with many hospitals likely unusable, there may be no place for some to receive treatment.

For many, there will be no power, water or telephone service. Cell phones won't work. An estimated 300,000 will need shelter. Total damage to buildings and utilities could cost tens of billions of dollars. Full recovery will take years, if not a decade.

For decades, geologists and seismologists have fretted about the possibility of a massive earthquake striking Memphis.

They have reason to worry.

The New Madrid fault, which runs from Marked Tree, Ark., northeast to Cairo, Ill., is the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains and site of three of the largest earthquakes ever felt in the lower 48 states.

Experts predict there's about a 10 percent chance of a massive earthquake in the next 50 years and a much greater chance of a smaller, yet still quite serious, quake much sooner.

Now, with the nation's attention on the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina, many in Memphis and Tennessee are wondering how we would fare in a similar catastrophe.

A number of politicians, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, said the hurricane should prompt the state and communities to re-examine their readiness for a major quake.

"It may not be for 150 years but it could also be next year," Bredesen said Wednesday. "We need to be stockpiling supplies and communications."

State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, has written Bredesen urging hearings on the state's emergency preparedness.

"We have a narrowing window of opportunity to formulate appropriate strategies and take the steps necessary to avoid some of the problems manifest in Louisiana," Norris wrote.

Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton has asked his staff for a report by Friday on the county's readiness for a major quake.

"It is imperative that we have a thorough understanding of our current state of evaluation and preparedness," he wrote in a memo.

That concern is welcome to the professionals who think about earthquakes and too often feel like Cassandra, issuing warnings no one hears.

"The hurricane has done a lot," said Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, a multistate information agency based in Memphis.

"Even without us going out and doing a press release, we've gotten a lot of inquiry," Wilkinson. "They're not asking about tornadoes or floods, they're asking about New Madrid. People know that it could be catastrophic. Clearly, the window is open and we're doing everything we can do to get the message out."

That message says that a major earthquake is not a matter of "if" but "when."

The New Madrid quakes, named for the town in the Missouri boot heel, occurred within a seven-week span, on Dec. 16, 1811, Jan. 23, 1812, and Feb. 7, 1812, and were accompanied by thousands of smaller quakes.

The destruction was immense with entire towns leveled. Some of the documented effects sound so implausible -- the Mississippi running backward, church bells in Boston ringing from the shaking -- they seem closer to myth than fact. But there's plenty of firsthand accounts that tell us it happened.

No one can say for certain how large they were -- the modern seismograph had yet to be invented -- but estimates range from magnitude 7.3 to 8.1. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, by comparison, was a 7.7.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the probability of a quake the size of the 1811-1812 events is 10 percent in the next 50 years. But an earthquake of at least 6.3 magnitude has up to a 25 percent chance of occurring in the next 15 years.

Exposed fault, Palmdale, Calif.

The New Madrid Fault is well below the surface and none of it is visible. California faults are nearer the surface. This photo shows a section of the San Andreas fault alongside a road in Palmdale, California, an hour north of Los Angeles.

Compare this to the quake diagrams, models of one section being forced underneath another.

The New Madrid fault poses particular dangers as well. Unlike in California and Alaska, the Earth's crust under the Central and Eastern United States is colder and harder. That means the earthquakes could cause destruction for hundreds of miles. Help will come farther and take longer to get here.

Another concern is the chance it won't be a solitary earthquake but a series of quakes. The geological record indicates that the last three catastrophic earthquakes along the New Madrid -- in 1811-12, around 1450 and around 900 -- came in bunches, said Eugene 'Buddy' Schweig of the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We're not talking about aftershocks (but separate quakes)," Schweig said. "It might make you much more careful about where you would shelter people, for example."

If there are multiple quakes, "we could end up with people sheltered all over the country," Wilkinson said.

One group that worries about earthquakes nearly as much as Memphis's geologists are its emergency management professionals.

At the top of the list of potential hazards facing the Mid- South is a catastrophic earthquake. The response plan maintained by the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency was drafted with one in mind.

The Emergency Operation Plan is a thick binder with dozens of entries that delineate responsibilities ranging from fire fighting and law enforcement to handling donations and animal control.

Written in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the plan is closely held, and requests to read it are viewed with suspicion by EMA officers. Some sections are left blank -- locations of alternative operations centers, for example -- and much of it deals in generalities about chains of command and areas of responsibility.

But the plan, combined with conversations with EMA officers and other experts, does spell out what the hours and days following a major catastrophe should look like.

In the immediate aftermath, Memphis will be a city of chaos and confusion. Buildings will be destroyed, roads impassable, and widespread fires likely.

The first step for authorities will be to establish a unified command, at the emergency operations center on Avery if the building is standing and accessible. If the building, which is surrounded by bridges and a railroad, cannot be reached, a mobile trailer will serve as headquarters.

At the operations center, command level representatives from 16 agencies will converge. Those agencies will lead "emergency support functions" and direct myriad tasks.

One priority is assessing the damage and deploying search and rescue teams from local fire stations. Critical access roads will need to be cleared and priority buildings, like hospitals and shelters, will have to be inspected to determine whether they can be used.

Communications will have to be established. If there is a complete failure of electronic systems, a network of ham radio operators will be employed.

Almost immediately, the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County will request aid from the governor, who will likely do the same from the president. That triggers state and federal funds and means the National Guard and FEMA can be activated.

A critical component will be mobilizing National Urban Search and Rescue task forces, 28 teams of firefighters, engineers and doctors trained in rescue techniques. One team, Tennessee Task Force One, is based in Memphis. Other teams are relatively close in Boone County, Mo., and Marion County, Ind.

The EMA will open shelters in unaffected buildings -- community centers, churches and schools -- and the Red Cross will operate them. The Salvation Army will supply food.

Evacuations will begin with "special populations" -- the elderly, hospitalized and handicapped. Using bullhorns, police officers and firefighters will go street to street, trying to reach as many as possible. City and school buses, if undamaged, will be used to transport survivors.

Also in the first hours, police will determine which streets to close and set up barricades. They will help people move out of affected areas in an orderly way. They will be called upon to keep order and prevent looting and civil disorder.

There is a good chance pipelines will rupture or other materials will spill from the city's numerous chemical facilities, so hazardous material technicians will attempt to stop leaks and control and clean spills.

Firefighters will battle blazes throughout the city. Because there will likely be no water pressure, they will carry maps that identify ponds, pools and other pockets of standing water.

Freezer warehouses have been identified as possible morgues, and disaster mortuary teams would be summoned to identify and handle the dead.

Despite the plan, there's much yet unknown.

The most recent multi-agency training exercises have focused on terrorist attacks, not earthquakes, and no one knows how well the various agencies will coordinate, particularly if there are serious disruptions in communications.

An evacuation plan is still being developed.

Any plan needs to take into account the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, said Gary Patterson, information services director for the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis.

"These are the people who are the pinch points," he said, the people who are hardest to reach and who will have the most difficult time preparing for a quake and evacuating.

Sammy Crews, exercise director of the EMA, said the agency learns after each disaster. For example, the agency never considered that victims might shoot at rescuers, as they apparently did in New Orleans, he said.

"Anything that happens anywhere in the country, it's a lesson for all of us," he said.

Some steps have already been taken. A number of structures in the region have undergone costly retrofits to prepare them for an earthquake.

Among the most significant is the Hernando DeSoto Bridge across the Mississippi River. It is being designed to withstand an earthquake of a 7.0 magnitude, said Ed Wasserman, director of structural engineering for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The state, in conjunction with Arkansas, is about halfway through the estimated $180 million project.

Other new bridges are being built to withstand a 6.0 event, Wasserman said.

Not all mitigation efforts need be so complex.

Harvey Ryland, the former director of the earthquake consortium and a former deputy director of FEMA, urges all families and businesses to take a few simple steps to prepare for earthquakes.

Placing Velcro under computers and screwing bookshelves to walls can prevent injury, said Ryland, while having agreements in place to relocate businesses can save jobs.

"You don't do that after the fact," he said. "You need to have a plan in the bottom drawer."

Copyright 2005, - Memphis, TN

Photos are NOT from the Commercial Appeal. Photo of the Calif. fault was used on MSNBC.


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