eight months, the bicentennial of a catastrophic two-month
period in America’s heartland will be observed. It
was approximately 2:15 a.m., Dec. 16, 1811 when what is
now known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone served notice it
had awakened. When its “reign of terror” subsided,
it had produced four principal quakes and 1,800 aftershocks
that would forever change topographical features, swallow
small settlements, create lakes and cause sections of the
Mississippi River to flow backward.
final principal earthquake on Feb. 7, 1812 destroyed New
Madrid, Missouri (then part of the Louisiana Territory),
then the largest community in the area, with a population
of 400. It had the great misfortune of sitting atop the
that area now suffer one or more seven- or eight-magnitude
earthquakes—the estimated strength of those that struck
200 years ago—the loss of life and destruction could
earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone pose far more
perilous hazards, beyond the destruction of infrastructure
and loss of life in that sector alone.
within New Madrid’s moderate-to-high-shake zones are
some 20 nuclear power plants, a dozen major oil trunk lines
and eight natural gas pipelines — oft-forgotten but
volatile components that could wreak widespread havoc if
indelible visual of such a catastrophe was offered by Steve
Geller, former lead Democrat in the Florida Senate, while
speaking to the insurance industry about catastrophic events
several years ago.
every natural gas pipeline in the nation is built over that
fault,” Geller said. “You’ll see the explosion
reflected off the Moon.”
neither that possible devastation nor the anniversary of
the 1811 event appears to be the impetus behind the Federal
Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) planning of its
National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE 11), a six-month emergency
preparedness program that kicked off April 6.
exercise, unprecedented in scope, is aimed at preparing
local, state and federal agencies in an eight state region
to function with little or no loss in continuity should
the area be confronted with, as it states in FEMA’s
Private Sector Participant Guide, “the catastrophic
nature of a major earthquake.”
why now? Seeking an answer to that question, AFP contacted
FEMA’s Office of External Affairs (OEA).
failing to grant a direct interview, OEA tersely responded
by email as to the timing of this event: “Planning
began several years ago.”
indicates that FEMA, which is conducting its first national-level
exercise to simulate responding to a natural hazard, was
not motivated by undisclosed information that a catastrophic
earthquake was imminent.
a catastrophic earthquake may not happen soon, those familiar
with the region’s history of seismic activity know
the exercise could not have come soon enough.
New Madrid Zone is the most active area, in terms of earthquakes,
east of the Rocky Mountains,” said David Applegate,
Ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey senior science advisor. “Particularly
in light of past events and ongoing seismicity, we feel
there still is a very real hazard.”
dangers lurking beneath the region were laid out plainly
in the article “Earthquake Hazard in the New Madrid
Seismic Zone,” which appeared in the August 2009 United
States Geological Survey Fact Sheet.
New Madrid seismic zone is a source of continuing small
and moderate earthquakes, which attest to the high stress
in the region and indicate that the processes that produced
large earthquakes over the previous 4,500 years are still
operating. There is no sign that the rate of these smaller
earthquakes is decreasing with time, as would be expected
if they were aftershocks of the 1811 to 1812 earthquakes.”
has been some discussion whether recent activity in the
“ring of fire”— most notably the Japan
and New Zealand earthquakes — will have an impact
on faults in the United States.
on the issue are, at best, split.
K. Denton, a senior geologist with Geo- Concepts Engineering,
Inc. in Ashburn, Va., told AFP, “Even with state-of-the-art
technology and the best understanding of plate tectonics,
the answer is really nebulous. The truthful answer is: We
one thing is for sure: Whenever FEMA gets involved, all
Americans should be concerned.
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