What Happen WHEN – Not IF – Another Giant Earthquake Strikes The New Madrid Fault Zone, Just 45 Miles From Memphis, Tennessee? Though the characters are fiction, the results will become real when the earthquake strikes the central United States.
Author and lecturer Sam Penny recently published the first of The 7.9 Scenario series, his novel Memphis 7.9. This book offers in story form a blunt perspective based on scientific analysis of what happens when a giant 7.9 magnitude earthquake strikes within a few miles of a major metropolitan area in the Central United States.
“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.”
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.”
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 happens. 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, resting on the flood plains and bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Shelby County, Tennessee, is home to over a million residents. Only forty-five 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 8,000 people killed, over 40,000 people injured, and nearly 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 eighty thousand people killed, half a million injured, over six 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 continues, “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 is so big that The 7.9 Scenario had to be broken into four parts. Book 2, called Broken River, will be published in August, 2004, and tells what happens to the Mississippi and Ohio River system in a great earthquake. The Holy Grail (2005) focuses on recovery efforts in Memphis and Exodus (2006) describes the efforts of millions of refugees trying to leave the stricken areas.
Sam Penny’s novel Memphis 7.9 is available on-line at www.the79scenario.com, www.amazon.com, and www.booksurge.com in both printed and eBook formats 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.