In the line of danger

By Dan Morris, Jackson Tn. Sun, Jan 22, 2006

Homelessness. Basic services such as sewer, electricity and water, cut off. Health care systems taxed, if available at all. Homes and buildings destroyed. Thousands of evacuees looking for help.

If you believe the chaos surrounding Hurricane Katrina could never be duplicated here, think again. Imagine what would happen to your family this week if a repeat of the 1812 earthquakes near Tiptonville shattered your world. Fact is, we sit dangerously close to the New Madrid Fault, an earthquake waiting to happen, a geological belt stretching from southern Illinois into West Tennessee.

If the ground starts shaking, are we ready? Are you ready?

Marty Clements is no doomsday prophet. But as director of the area's Emergency Management Agency, he's a bit edgy today.

Monday is the 194th anniversary of a disaster so large in scope that, if repeated, could make the effects of Hurricane Katrina pale in comparison. It was Jan. 23, 1812, when the second of three gigantic earthquakes changed the face of the Mississippi River Valley. Nearly 200 years later, with thousands more people and buildings in the region, a similar quake would send casualty numbers soaring and leave thousands homeless.

"Based on history, we better be paying attention, because there is pressure on the plates now," Clements said. "Look at all the events that are happening around the world. Sooner or later, it's going to come our time."

map Cairo to Memphis And when it does, Jackson will be a major player, either as a crippled city needing aid from outside sources, or as a staging area to help Memphis recover from disaster.

Clements' worst fear is that first scenario: when chaos strikes, lives are on the line and first responders are stretched thin. He loses sleep over the possibilities, especially in the wake of Katrina's eye-opening aftermath.

"Hurricanes are bad because of the winds, the water and flooding," Clements said. "And we've seen the (destruction caused by) winds in tornadoes. But the earthquake is the worst, because it does so much damage to so many things."

The latest odds from the scientific community offer a 7 percent to 10 percent probability that a magnitude 7.7 or greater earthquake will hit the New Madrid Seismic Zone within the next 50 years. A 7.7 quake would be similar to the quakes of 1811-1812. There is a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6 or greater earthquake in the same time period.

Those are pretty high odds, but most area residents rarely give earthquakes a second thought. Since no significant earthquake damage has occurred in nearly 200 years, it's difficult for the Jackson area to take warnings seriously.

Even Jackson's Shelley Jelinek, who experienced earthquakes while living in California, seldom thinks about it.

"Around here, it's tornadoes," she said. "You know earthquakes could happen, but you don't dwell on it."

The New Madrid Seismic Zone extends 150 miles southward from Cairo, Ill., to Marked Tree, Ark., dipping into Kentucky near Fulton and into Tennessee near Reelfoot Lake, extending southeast to Dyersburg. The zone crosses five state lines and crosses the Mississippi River in at least three places. It poses the greatest earthquake risk east of the Rocky Mountains, according to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis.

Jackson is about 70 miles southeast of the Reelfoot Lake area where a magnitude 8.0 or greater earthquake occurred on Feb. 7, 1812. That was the third and strongest quake in a series that began Dec. 16, 1811.

If an 8.0 quake strikes again on the New Madrid fault, no one can be certain how it will affect Jackson. But extensive damage is possible, and that's what Clements must prepare to handle.

Worst-case scenario
Here's the worst-case scenario: A powerful quake hits about 1:30 p.m. on a cold Tuesday in January. Kids are in school; parents are at work; hospitals are already bulging with flu and pneumonia patients. The shaking ruptures underground water and gas lines. Telephone and utility poles snap, cutting electrical power and phone services. Cellular towers topple; so cell phones are useless. Bricks pop off buildings, and many older houses are jolted off their foundations.

Some of the city's tallest buildings, like Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, are still standing, but sustain significant structural damage. The older school buildings, still packed with children, struggle to remain erect.

Roads are blocked by fallen debris; bridges are impassable; fires ignite around gas leaks; hazardous materials are uncontained in industrial parks. And darkness will soon blanket this chilling catastrophe.

No wonder Clements has trouble sleeping.

Faced with this, Clements has three priorities:

Assess damages in Jackson.

Decide how to communicate emergency instructions to the public.

Restore operations at the Regional Airport in Jackson. That is Ground Zero for relief efforts.
"If we're hit badly, the first thing we'll be getting is military assistance to fix our airport runway so we can get stuff in here," Clements said.

The response is part of the West Tennessee Regional Earthquake Basic Response Plan. Written 10 years ago, the plan has "procedures of preparing for, responding to and recovering from the effects of an earthquake or other major emergency." The plan is being updated.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tennessee has taken a fresh look at disaster planning with Gov. Phil Bredesen instructing the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to review and update earthquake preparedness. TEMA's plan should be complete in a few weeks.

"We've been working on it for years," TEMA's Cecil Whaley said. "What we have in place is a very good base. It's just a matter of going back and doing an update on the staging areas, the logistical areas ..."

Even then, regular drills are needed to keep emergency responders on their toes.

"We're not going to sit here and say that all the plans are perfect," said Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium.

"We saw in Hurricane Katrina that they had just (ended) a year and a half of focused planning on dealing with that exact scenario, and they fell on their face," Wilkinson said. "So just to say you have a plan on the shelf or a plan in place is not the final answer. You've got to exercise it. And if you don't exercise it and work the bugs out, Mother Nature is going to exercise it for you. And that's definitely not where you want to test your plan."

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