An Unexpected Disaster?
On Boxing Day, 2004, the worst natural disaster to strike the world since 1976 unexpectedly blotted out over 150,000 lives along the shores of the Indian Ocean. Though the earthquake happened minutes to hours before its tsunami reached land, only a miniscule number of people had any warning.
Was the catastrophe really unexpected? Didn’t someone know this could happen?
Seismologists have long known the Indian and Australian plates are diving under the Burma plate along the Sundra Trench west of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. Giant earthquakes have happened there in the past (most recently in 2000, 1861, and 1833), and killer tsunamis have sometimes been the result (1861 and 1833). They warned that we should expect another great earthquake there, and some warned that we should expect another tsunami in the area.
In the face of certainty, those who failed to plan and prepare made the excuse that since no one could make an accurate prediction and the probability of it happening was so low, the earthquake and tsunami were “unexpected.”
A Similar Unexpected Disaster in the Central United States
The potential for a natural disaster in the central United States is strikingly similar. A tsunami will not sweep through Memphis or St. Louis, but a great earthquake could happen close enough to destroy both cities, and to wreak havoc as far away as Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans, and Kansas City.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone, stretching from east central Arkansas to the southern tip of Illinois, is the source of concern. In 1811 and 1812 a series of giant earthquakes fractured the fault, creating ten new lakes in the Mississippi valley, forcing the Mississippi River to run backwards, and reportedly ringing church bells in Boston, over a thousand miles away—the strongest earthquake to strike the contiguous 48 States in recorded history.
The US Geological Survey says there is a one in ten chance of another giant earthquake on the New Madrid Fault in the next fifty years. Most seismologists agree that a giant New Madrid earthquake is eventually inevitable.
How Bad Could It Be?
In 1811 an estimated five thousand white settlers and black slaves could be found along the Mississippi River, and less than a million resided west of the Appalachian Mountains. They lived close to the earth in the forests and along the riverbanks in log cabins or on their boats. Eleven deaths were officially reported, but some historians estimate that as many as a thousand souls could have been lost along the river during the two months of shaking. There were reports of deaths as far away as Charleston, South Carolina.
The USGS and FEMA have published studies to estimate the expected shaking intensity from earthquakes of various magnitudes along the New Madrid Fault. When those estimates are cross-multiplied by the US census, the results are staggering. Today, an estimated 32,000,000 people in the 300,000-square-mile area surrounding the fault would be at risk from a giant earthquake of magnitude 7.9 on the New Madrid.
In a worst-case scenario, the death toll could be 20,000 and grow to 80,000 if major flooding resulted from the shaking. Nearly half a million people would be injured, and as many as 10,000,000 could be left homeless. And to make matters worse, those who survive and are faced with bringing about the recovery of the United States could find that 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and 20% of its shipping capacity had been wiped out in the space of thirteen minutes, the time it takes the seismic waves to spread across the country from an epicenter on the New Madrid.
Preparation and Planning Make a Difference
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was established in 1949 in Hawaii to detect the movement of tsunamis and give warning to the coastal regions around the Pacific Ocean. It works. The technology is not new.
There had been talk of preparing a similar system for the Indian Ocean, but the lack of priorities limited the funding and resulted in no warning system in place when disaster struck December 26, 2004. Worse than that, there was no awareness of the danger, no education. The general public and local officials had no idea of what to do if a tsunami was imminent, how to respond if they had received a warning, or what to do afterward.
The emphasis has now shifted to tsunami warning systems. The politicians are speaking with authority of the need to do something about the tsunami problem. We hear that a tsunami warning system will be implemented for the Indian Ocean, and we all applaud that decision. We hear of enhancing the tsunami warning system in the Caribbean to protect Puerto Rico, and we feel a sense of relief. The lesson of how tragic a tsunami can be has not been wasted.
But will our citizens and leaders learn the real lesson from the catastrophe in Southeast Asia? Mega-impact natural disasters may be low probability events, but many of them are inevitable and can even be forecast, though not predicted to a precise date.
The similarity between the Southeast Asian tsunami and a New Madrid giant earthquake is found in the lack of preparedness for an inevitable natural event. The lesson for us to learn is that by becoming aware and preparing and planning, we can make a difference. The human race can significantly reduce the level of the tragedy associated with such a natural disaster, and not just for a tsunami.
Now is the time to act on the lessons learned in Asia, and to apply it to the preparation and planning along the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Support of the seismological and structural research efforts of the Universities, the public education efforts of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, and the preparedness and mitigation efforts of the state and local Emergency Management Agencies is vital. More funding from the government and business is needed. Public awareness of what the future holds is essential.
Now is the time for the entire country to realize the stake everyone else has in how well the people in the New Madrid damage zone plan and prepare for this inevitable event. True, it may not happen in our lifetime, but what if it does? Last year you could have asked, what if a giant tsunami should strike in the Indian Ocean? The time to learn the lesson is now.
About Sam Penny
Sam Penny retired from a career in physics, computer science, engineering, and corporate management to become an author. His analysis of the present-day effects of another giant earthquake on the New Madrid Seismic Zone serves as the basis for Memphis 7.9 and Broken River, the first two books in The 7.9 Scenario series of novels. He continues to write, working on his next novel and a non-fiction book detailing his analysis.
Penny’s objective is to raise public awareness of the danger our country faces from the New Madrid Fault, and to lobby for increased funding and action to prepare, plan, and mitigate the inevitable disaster. Having written and read scientific articles in the past, Penny understands the limitations of disseminating information to the public through those channels. Instead, he is presenting the results of his studies as a “what if” story and is writing novels in The 7.9 Scenario series, telling of how such an earthquake occurs, what it does to our environment, and what to expect afterwards. Some say it is Science Fiction; others call it Reality Fiction.
Memphis 7.9 and Broken River are available on-line from the author’s website at www.the79scenario.com. They are also available from www.authorsden.com,
www.amazon.com, www.booksurge.com, and in selected bookstores around the country.