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(note: map of the New Madrid fault in the original post -- couldn't copy it)

Major quake predicted in Midwest Active seismic zone means the 'Big One' will occur at any time

By Pamela Brogan / Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- An earthquake powerful enough to flatten St. Louis or Memphis, break levees on the Mississippi River and disrupt the nation's railroad system and natural gas supplies is certain to hit the Midwest. The only question, scientists say, is when. The New Madrid seismic zone, which stretches through Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, is such a hotbed of activity that some scientists say an earthquake could strike in the next 10 to 15 years. More than 200 small earthquakes occur in the area annually. "It wouldn't surprise me if we had a quake with a magnitude of 6 within the next 10 years," said Robert Hermann professor of geophysics at St. Louis University in Missouri. "We cannot predict how big and how often earthquakes occur, but it's better to be very prudent." Arch Johnston, director of the Center of Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis, agrees the New Madrid zone could be ground zero for the next "Big One." "The public should be aware that this is an active earthquake zone, capable of producing big earthquakes," Johnston said. Johnston predicted in 1985 that there was a 40 percent to 63 percent chance the region could experience an earthquake measuring 6.0 within the next 15 years. Today, Johnston's research still is highly regarded by the scientific community, although he acknowledges earthquake forecasting is an imprecise science. "We have more information today than we had in 1985, but I'd still stick with that forecast. Predicting earthquakes is a lot like predicting the weather," Johnston said. Earthquake threat serious James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, agreed the earthquake threat in New Madrid is serious. There are "all kinds of predictions, but Memphis could be leveled, depending upon where it hits," warned Witt, who said the federal government has an emergency response plan in effect in the event of a quake. Witt said he was most concerned about the large number of old buildings in the region, including schools and hospitals, that do not meet building seismic codes and have not been retrofitted. "That's not good," Witt said. "If people could see what I saw at Northridge (California), they would spend a little bit now and save three times the costs later. Most of the injuries occurred because of damaged buildings." The Northridge earthquake in 1994 measured magnitude 6.8 and was the second largest disaster in U.S. history, behind Hurricane Andrew. It caused more than 60 deaths, 12,000 injuries and $15.3 billion in damages, including 114,000 damaged buildings, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Scientists rank the New Madrid region fourth among active earthquake zones in the United States behind Alaska, California and the Pacific Northwest. It is of concern because of its active seismic activity and history. New Madrid ground zero New Madrid, Mo., was ground zero in 1811 and 1812 for three of the largest earthquakes in the nation's history that scientists estimate measured up to magnitude 7.9. There were claims at the time that the earthquakes were so powerful that church bells rang as far away as Boston. The quakes led Congress in 1915 to enact the first disaster relief act, despite relatively minor casualties and damages because the area was sparsely populated. In 1895, Columbia, Mo., was the site of the strongest ever earthquake recorded in the Mississippi Valley. "History repeats itself," said Edward Gray, program manager for the Missouri Seismic Safety Commission, a state group that makes earthquake safety recommendations. Federal and state earthquake emergency management experts also are concerned that a New Madrid earthquake could be particularly disastrous because of the Mississippi Valley's sandy soil. "Basically, the soil will become like play dough and it will become highly unstable," said Joseph Rachel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's earthquake program manager. "What this means is that we should not be building critical facilities, such as hospitals and schools in areas like this." Another concern is that the nation's railroad system could be disrupted, as could natural gas supplies. Five natural gas pipelines run under the Mississippi River that provide fuel to the south and the northeast. "This is going to be a nationwide problem," Gray said. "Heck, it's going to affect Europe and Japan because they will have trouble getting goods across the country."

-- (, January 27, 2000

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