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What if the big one hits Midwest?

By Jay MacDonald ·
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Posted: 10 am ET

What would happen if a major earthquake hit the Midwest? It turns out one did – three, actually – exactly 200 years ago this month, with their epicenter in New Madrid, a frontier trading post in southeastern Missouri about 150 miles downriver from St. Louis.

A new report from AIR Worldwide risk modeling used the bicentennial of this rare "correlated triplet" event to explore what might happen if it were to reoccur today.

The first quake, magnitude 7.7, occurred Dec. 16, 1811. The second, a 7.5 jolt, hit Dec. 23. The third, again a 7.7, struck on Feb. 7, 1812.

The quakes wiped out New Madrid, caused significant damage to homes and structures in St. Louis and were felt as far away as Washington, D.C. They even caused church bells to ring in Charleston, S.C.

If the New Madrid quake were to hit today, the results would be far more calamitous. St. Louis, a jumping-off point for westward expansion with just 5,000 people back then, has a metro-area population of 2.9 million today. The surrounding regions, including Memphis, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., would bring the number of those affected to 7.2 million.

According to the Mid-America Earthquake Center, a recurrence could result in 3,500 fatalities, 86,000 injuries and 2 million people in need of immediate shelter. Electric power, water, sewage and home fuel systems could be out for weeks and even months because roads, rail lines, bridges and river traffic up and down the Mississippi would be extensively disrupted.

AIR estimates that the total insured losses of such an event would be $110 billion. Add on another $4 billion in workers' compensation losses if such a quake were to occur during working hours.

Fortunately, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is a 7 to 10 percent chance of a 7.0 magnitude quake hitting the Midwest within the next 50 years.

This year's 4.6 and 5.7 earthquakes in Oklahoma and the 5.8 quake in Mineral, Va., served as a reminder for many that most homeowners insurance policies do not cover earthquake damage. Data from those quakes is being included with the New Madrid studies in the new seismic hazard maps being prepared by USGS for 2013.

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February 21, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The fastest way to bring major help to areas affected by natural disasters is the railroads. They can carry the heavy equipment, supplies, people and other forms of aid and take out casualties with the least amount of repairs. Roads may need repairs but the bridges are the scary repairs. There's tens of thousands of bridges in just Missouri. How far into the city would the Mississippi water go, should we have a major quake? Highway 40,44 and 55 could become waterways for a time. Even if an earthquake doesn't move the river over the floodwalls, the chemical and oil products stored along the river could create nightmare spills, explosions and fires. Why not move these questionable businesses further downstream, away from the residential areas? I wouldn't mind storing non-flammable products but remember what happened in 1993? All those gas storage tanks floating around? Almost blew up Carondelet and other areas.

Add in the gas lines to every home and business. What about the major underground gas lines? A whole neighborhood was affected in California when a gas line running under them exploded. We need to identify the routes through the city and county to determine how dangerous certain areas are. You can be sure that the companies involved won't advertise or warn those living above their pipelines. Afterward, these companies would use their lawyers to tie up litigation for years while we'd be left with the aftermath and their lawyers to deal with.

Proactive is the keyword. No reason to panic but do we want to leave these details up to our children to deal with? Broken gas lines create clouds of gas that move along the contours of the land and could create firestorms in other areas. Why not have a plan in place? At the very worst, the Hill could be the highest area and at least if they are prepared, we can still get something great to eat after a long swim.

In 1811, the river ran backwards and then carried the mess downstream creating the lakes in southern Illinois. The entire town of New Madrid was sucked under the Mississippi River. While I'm not frightened of a repeat, it's enough of a threat to have a plan in place. Down around New Madrid and Carthage, there are tremors everyday. Hardly a threat but something to think about. They would be getting all the debris from up north, rolling and/or burning down the river.

wil renn
February 03, 2012 at 10:31 pm

small earthquakes are measured everyday from new madrid,mo down to memphis,tn. the mississippi river appears top be a failed rift from millions of yrs ago.

February 03, 2012 at 2:31 am

I've lived in southern California for most of my life. I can't begin to remember how many quakes I've been through.

Frances Owens
February 02, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I'm temporarily staying with my sister in Okla. after over 20 yrs in the northwest. Funny thing, all those yrs in the Nw, earthquake country and I never felt one but temporarily in Okla and I felt those 2. There were many more smaller ones here. I checked everyday with USGS and all were in the same area. I did some research and found the area of the earthquakes is the exact same area with 150 fracking operations. Any fracking going on near the New Madrid fault? That may certainly increase the odds of the big one occuring as well as shorten the time before it happens.

Herbert Winston
January 24, 2012 at 7:30 pm

I heard the new Defence autherization Act defines anyone with more then a week worth of food 'stockpiled' is tecnically a terrorist. (i have not verified this) if it is ture, not only is my mother, with a well stocked pantery, a terrorist, but anyone prepared for such events (or a camping trip) is as well.

david Crandall
January 23, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Even worse if the yellowstone supervolcano erupts which would devastate much of the U.S. and possibly wipe out the human race.