WHEN – Not IF – Another Giant Earthquake Strikes The New Madrid Fault Zone, It Could Destroy The United States
A dangerous beast lurks beneath the farmlands of eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee and Kentucky, and the Missouri Bootheel. There, in 1811 and 1812, the earth’s crust fractured to produce the greatest episode of giant earthquakes to strike the United States in recorded history. Today, in 2004, it is a matter of when, not if, the beast will strike once more.
Author and lecturer Sam Penny has published two novels in his The 7.9 Scenario series, Memphis 7.9 and Broken River. They detail the effects of a magnitude 7.9 earthquake. The books offer a blunt perspective of what transpires when the beast awakens yet again, as seen from the point of view of characters who are in the damage zone when it happens. The stories are based upon scientific analysis of what happens when a giant earthquake occurs beneath the Mississippi River and within a few miles of a major metropolitan area in the central United States.
The point of weakness that fractured in 1811, known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, has the potential to create a damage field of 300,000 square miles, so large and catastrophic that casualties could exceed 60,000 killed, 300,000 injured, and 8,000,000 people left homeless. In 1810 only 5,000 whites and slaves were counted in the area; today 32,000,000 live at risk.
It is not just a local problem. Damage and disruption to the infrastructure, industry, and transportation of the United States could wipe out 10% of our country’s gross domestic product, enough to reduce our land to a second rate power in the world.
Many in the United States are unaware of the danger. Even those who know often tend to push the reality of that danger low on their priority list. Some assume their distance from the fault, or the low probability of an earthquake even happening, protects them. Others are resigned to a belief that there is nothing they can do.
“My goal is to make people aware of the danger and of the critical need to plan now on how to reduce the impact of such a catastrophic event,” Penny said. “There are things we can do today to mitigate the impact, to protect our country and children and grandchildren from absolute ruin.
“The 7.9 Scenario books shine a light on how deadly a blow a giant earthquake on the New Madrid will be to our country. By reading what happens through the eyes of participants, my readers become involved and sensitive to the prospects. The books tell a story to keep the reader’s attention while teaching what will happen and why.”
Penny retired in 1998 from a career as an engineering physicist, computer scientist, entrepreneur, and corporate executive. “My keen interest in geology evolved while designing computing systems for the oil drilling industry. During that time I co-authored several trade and scientific articles with geologists on directional drilling and rock mechanics.”
“Like any good engineer should, I spent six years collecting and analyzing data about earthquakes before publishing,” Penny said. “Though I worked in California, home of the San Andreas Fault, I found that seismologists considered a giant earthquake on the New Madrid Fault to be just as likely as one on the West Coast. Furthermore, the nature of the geology and demographics in the central United States meant earthquakes there would be ten times more devastating than one of the same size in California. Therefore, I focused my studies on the New Madrid Fault.”
In 1989 he felt the shaking from the magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake. “When I saw the fallen Cypress Freeway in Oakland, California, a mile from the original offices of the company I helped found in 1970, my interest in geology refocused on seismology and the effects of giant earthquakes.”
Reports from the United States Geological Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided the raw material for the analysis of what happens to people and man-made structures when a giant earthquake occurs. Penny explains, “Larger events are possible but much less likely to happen, even to the point where some say they will never happen. Earthquakes in the magnitude 6.0 to 6.5 range are much more likely, as much as two chances in three on the New Madrid in the next fifty years, but their effects will be localized. I chose to study a 7.9 event because it will cause catastrophic harm to the region and to our country, and has up to a ten percent chance of happening within the next fifty years. It is the ‘unhappy’ medium.”
The analysis began in Memphis. That city in Shelby County, Tennessee, resting on the flood plains and bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, is home to nearly a million residents. Only 45 miles from the southern half of the New Madrid Fault, it is the closest large urban area to the fault zone.
The southern extension of the 350-mile long New Madrid Seismic Zone hides beneath a half-mile-thick layer of mud and sand, sediments that fill the Mississippi valley from Illinois to Louisiana. Apart from white circles of sand outlining old sand boils, you can find little evidence of the great earthquakes that rocked that region in 1811 and 1812. Five of those temblors measured over 8.0 magnitude. The aftershocks continued for five years. That episode remains the largest seismic event to strike the United States in recorded history.
“I applied USGS and FEMA numbers to Shelby County and concluded they could be looking at over 7,000 people killed, over 35,000 people injured, and more than half a million people left homeless. I next applied the same analysis to the entire eastern half of the United States, from the Rockies to the Atlantic and summed it all together. The results were staggering: over 60,000 people killed, 300,000 injured, over eight million left homeless. When I looked at what could happen to industry, energy, and transportation, it became obvious that such an event could push the United States into the worst depression it had ever seen.”
Penny continued, “A magnitude 7.9 earthquake on the New Madrid Seismic Zone could overnight destroy 10% of our country’s gross domestic product. The personal tragedy of deaths, injuries, and homeless would pale compared to the widespread after-effects on our economy and way of life. Such a happening would be a truly catastrophic disaster, and the USGS says the probability of this happening is 7 to 10% in the next fifty years. The probability of blowing your brains out by playing Russian Roulette with a twelve shot revolver is 8%. These risks are equivalent.”
“The results of my analysis presented me with a dilemma. When I looked into how our country is preparing for such an eventuality, I found there is largely ignorance and apathy amongst the citizens and a focus on short-term problems by our governments. Looking into the future I could see the demise of my concept of The United States of America with odds for it happening in the lifetime of my grandchildren that I personally would not bet on. I knew there were actions that could be taken by both the public and the government, things that can be done now. More light must shine on this problem.”
“Having written and read scientific treatises in the past, including several very good ones on this very problem, I concluded I should not spread my message along the same path. I decided to do something new. I would tell of what will happen as accurately as I could in the form of a story, showing what happens through the eyes of someone who is there, a genre I like to call Reality Fiction. I would write a novel that would interest and educate the public in the problem. I would provide a resource for the citizenry, elected officials and bureaucracy to learn how to protect themselves, the infrastructure, and the country from a truly catastrophic disaster such as a great earthquake on the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Thus began my writing project.”
“I had to relearn writing, for writing fiction is a very different task than writing science,” Penny explains. Memphis 7.9, Book 1 of The 7.9 Scenario, published August, 2003, is the first result of that effort. “I am happy to say I succeeded in learning to write fiction. My book received Honorable Mention for Best Science Fiction novel at MidSouthCon 22 at Memphis in March, 2004.”
The story was so big that The 7.9 Scenario had to be broken into a series. Book 2, called Broken River, was published in September, 2004, and tells what happens to the Mississippi and Ohio River system in a great earthquake. The Holy Grail, to be published in the next eighteen months, will focus on recovery efforts in Memphis and the efforts of millions of refugees trying to leave the stricken areas.
Sam Penny’s novels Memphis 7.9 and Broken River are available on-line at www.the79scenario.com and www.booksurge.com and at selected bookstores. He is also presenting copies to the Public Libraries in towns and cities where he stays on his book tour throughout the central and eastern United States.