New Madrid Quake Inevitable, But Public Painfully Unprepared

by Chip Taulbee  on Monday, Sep. 26, 2005 12:00 am  

It must have been while waiting for emergency responders to arrive after a natural disaster that Ben Franklin first said, "God helps those who help themselves."

Landlocked Arkansas can expect only indirect impact from hurricanes like Katrina and Rita. But scientists describe the specter of a catastrophic earthquake along the New Madrid fault as a not-if-but-when scenario, and emergency responders have given individual citizens the most key role in their own survival of a quake.

Although state and county agencies put a lot of thought into the unthinkable, they admit their response plans have cracks: Transportation and housing issues top the list. And post-9/11 renovations to some aspects of these disaster plans are ongoing or incomplete, putting Arkansas in a precarious position should a major quake strike very soon.

Emergency managers are also learning from Hurricane Katrina that previous disaster response time estimates were optimistic. People affected by major natural disasters need to plan on being on their own longer.

Unfortunately, scientists and emergency managers agree, Arkansans simply do not think about earthquakes — even if earthquakes could be the most destructive of the state's potential natural disasters. Their infrequency, however, has created a public mindset unlike California's, where earthquakes are common and preparation routine.

For all its administrative planning, Arkansas is not ready for a major earthquake because the public is not prepared.

Charts: New Madrid and Earthquakes

Click here for a map of local seismic events from 1974-2005. Click here for a map of how earthquakes travel. Click here for a chart of 2005 Arkansas earthquakes. (Charts require Adobe Acrobat viewer. Click here for a free copy.)

History and Geography

Between December 1811 and February 1812, three earthquakes along the New Madrid fault gave the continental United States the biggest shakings in the country's history. All three quakes are believed to have had magnitudes of 8.0 or higher on the Richter Scale (which had not yet been invented) and inflicted damage of biblical proportions.

Towns and islands in the Mississippi River disappeared, vast swaths of land sank into the ground, new lakes were formed, and the Mississippi even flowed backward.

The loss of life was, however, minimized because the area was sparsely populated and mostly undeveloped.

Today, more than 10 million people live in the New Madrid seismic area. The fault system itself stretches 150 miles from Cairo, Ill., through New Madrid and Caruthersville, Mo., and down to Blytheville and Marked Tree. It's the country's greatest earthquake risk east of the Rocky Mountains, and yet many people living above it have little knowledge and even less concern about the geological tensions below.

That is probably because there are so few New Madrid earthquakes that can actually be felt.

Gary Patterson of the Center for Earthquake Research & Information in Memphis said there are only theories and no definite explanations as to why New Madrid quakes are so infrequent compared with earthquakes along California's San Andreas fault.

But the important part of the New Madrid fault's geography is that when big quakes do strike, they affect a larger area than those along San Andreas.

That's because, Patterson said, the earth's crust in the central United States is deep, hard and cold compared with crust in California, conditions that allow energy to travel faster and farther.

The New Madrid quake of December 1811 reportedly rang church bells in Boston — more than 1,000 miles away.

Many parts of northeast Arkansas and the New Madrid seismic area also rest on a thick layer of sediment deposits that could shake violently during a quake.

Patterson has studied areas affected by earthquakes and compared structures built on hard rock to similar structures built on sediments. Structures built on soft soil fared much worse.

While scientists are not predicting an earthquake the size of the 1811 and 1812 events any time soon, even a magnitude 6.0 quake would be a major regional disaster.

The U.S. Geological Survey puts the odds at 40 percent that a magnitude 6.0 or greater New Madrid earthquake will strike in the next 35 years. Haydar Al-Shukri, director of the Arkansas Center for Earthquake Education, said a large quake could be even more likely.

"Statistically, a 6.0 or a 6.5 we're supposed to see every 90 years," Al-Shukri said. "The last one happened in 1895, so we're due."


Of all of Arkansas' potential disasters — including flooding, tornadoes and ice storms — a sizeable earthquake along the New Madrid fault would be the hardest to recover from, according to David Maxwell, deputy director for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

Unlike tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, earthquakes do not give notice and do not allow for evacuations or the preparatory mobilization of response teams. Getting and sharing information immediately after the earthquake will be a key to responding to the disaster. It also poses major challenges.

"We feel like the main problem immediately after an earthquake is communication and finding out exactly what's happened," Maxwell said.

The Civil Air Patrol will serve as the ADEM's eyes right after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake or greater, flying designated routes over the disaster area to collect video and pictures.

Communication between emergency responders could soon be made easier by the Arkansas Wireless Information Network, a shared-use wireless voice and data system. Currently, 12 state agencies use eight independent radio systems, and there are even more isolated systems used by various counties and municipalities.

"With this system we'll at least have direction and control at the disaster scene and have folks be able to communicate with each other," Maxwell said, although he was not sure when the project would be complete.

Evacuating victims from affected areas could also prove problematic, as a powerful earthquake could knock many roads out of service.

Maxwell said, "To get into the area we may be dependent on helicopters, and we have not that many in Arkansas."

The state is also short on temporary housing, Maxwell said, but the ADEM is working to line up additional shelters for future disasters, like manufactured homes and tent cities.

Transportation and housing issues will force the ADEM to seek outside help from the Federal Emergency Manage-ment Agency. But Hurricane Katrina showed how inefficiency can arise when bureaucracies collaborate.

Maxwell believes that it should be clear who is in charge of a disaster response.

"Our philosophy, and I think it has worked well for a lot of years, is that all disasters are local and the local chief executive, it's his or her disaster," Maxwell said.

Craighead County, one of the many northeastern Arkansas counties likely to be affected by a large New Madrid earthquake, is taking its cue from the federal government on how to respond to a disaster.

The Craighead County Office of Emergency Management, like many local agencies in Arkansas and across the country, is implementing the Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is designed to coordinate responses to multiple threats or disasters regardless of cause, size or complexity.

NIMS is supposed to standardize organizational structures, processes and procedures; give standards for planning, training and exercises; help with equipment acquisition and certification standards; and provide interoperable communications processes, procedures and systems along with technologies to support information management systems.

The same system was used to respond to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Since Katrina, Jack Richardson, county coordinator for Craighead County's Office of Emergency Management, said his office would be doing a comprehensive review of its response plan and make improvements.

One system that has been working very well for Katrina response, Maxwell said, is the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which allows 47 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico to share resources readily. It was through the compact that Arkansas sent National Guard, state police, ADEM and state crime lab employees to the Gulf Coast.

Still, the best help victims might receive after a disaster might come from themselves.


One of the most important lessons Maxwell said the ADEM has learned so far from the Katrina response is that first responders could be slower to reach disaster victims than previously expected.

"We have always told the people in eastern Arkansas [areas] that are prone to earthquakes that they need to be prepared to be on their own for at least 72 hours. They may need to be prepared for five days to a week." he said.

Richardson said it could be even longer than that be-cause a big enough quake could affect more than a half-dozen states, stret-ching emergency resources painfully thin.

That leaves it up to individuals to prepare for disaster.

"The best thing anyone can do is prepare themselves and their families," Maxwell said. "Have disaster supply kits, have a family disaster plan."

But emergency managers admit that widespread preparation has not taken place — primarily, Maxwell and Richardson agree, because the public doesn't think about earthquakes since they are so rarely felt

Al-Shukri, whose Arkansas Center for Earthquake Education stopped receiving state and FEMA funding for earthquake public education a few years ago, said the ADEM is not doing enough to teach citizens how to prepare for such an event.

"I don't see public education going anywhere at this point," Al-Shukri said. "It's important that in the first few hours [of an earthquake] people know what they need to do."

Maxwell said his department takes every opportunity it can to get messages out all over the state to let the public know how to plan for various disasters. He realizes, however, that there is only so much his department — or any agency — can do.

FEMA Tips to Prepare Your Business for an Earthquake

• Assess your facility's vulnerability to earthquakes. Ask local government agencies for seismic information for your area.

• Have your facility inspected by a structural engineer. Develop and prioritize strengthening measures. These may include adding steel bracing to frames, adding sheer walls to frames, strengthening columns and building foundations, and replacing unreinforced brick filler walls.

• Follow safety codes when constructing a facility or making major renovations.

• Inspect nonstructural systems such as air conditioning, communications and pollution control systems. Assess the potential for damage. Prioritize measures to prevent damages.

• Inspect your facility for any item that could fall, spill, break or move during an earthquake. Take steps to reduce these hazards:

• Move large and heavy objects to lower shelves or the floor. Hang heavy items away from where people work.

• Secure shelves, filing cabinets, tall furniture, desktop equipment, computers, printers, copiers and light fixtures.

• Secure fixed equipment and heavy machinery to the floor. Larger equipment can be placed on casters and attached to tethers which attach to the wall.

• Add bracing to suspended ceilings, if necessary.

• Install safety glass where appropriate.

• Secure large utility and process piping.

• Keep copies of design drawings of the facility to be used in assessing the facility's safety after an earthquake.

• Review processes for handling and storing hazardous materials. Have incompatible chemicals stored separately.

• Ask your insurance carrier about earthquake insurance and mitigation techniques.

• Establish procedures to determine whether an evacuation is necessary after an earthquake.

• Designate areas in the facility away from exterior walls and windows where occupants should gather after an earthquake if an evacuation is not necessary.

• Conduct earthquake drills. Provide personnel with the following safety information:

1. In an earthquake, if indoors, stay there. Take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture or counter, or brace yourself against an inside wall. Protect your head and neck.

2. If outdoors, move into the open, away from buildings, street lights and utility wires.

3. After an earthquake, stay away from windows, skylights and items that could fall. Do not use the elevators.

4. Use stairways to leave the building if a building evacuation is necessary.




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