Analysis by Sam Penny: The US lags in planning and preparing for a giant earthquake in the center of the country.
Last Thursday morning, February 10, at 8:04:54 am, a fracture the size of a 160-acre farm ripped through the basement rock 16 kilometers below the Buffalo Creek Ditch, 10 miles west-southwest of Dell, Arkansas. The earthquake from the 4.1 magnitude temblor was felt strongly from Cairo, Illinois, to Tunica, Mississippi, and points east. Even folks in sophisticated Memphis, 47 miles away, looked around in wonder.
In the book Memphis 7.9, the fictional Dr. Paul Kenton reported on the first fictional earthquake, “At 9:12 this morning a magnitude 4.4 earthquake occurred at a depth of 11.3 kilometers with an epicenter near Dell, Arkansas. While this temblor is stronger than usual, events like this are a common occurrence on the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and there is nothing to worry about.”
“There is nothing to worry about”—words to live in infamy.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone, stretching from east central Arkansas to the southern tip of Illinois, is a major source of concern to the US Geological Survey and FEMA. In 1811 and 1812 a series of giant earthquakes fractured that fault zone, 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 USGS 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. It is only a matter of time before an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, roughly the size of the first earthquake that struck December 16, 1811, once again fractures the New Madrid.
How Bad Could It Be—What Is At Risk?
An estimated five thousand white settlers and black slaves could be found along the Mississippi River in 1811, 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. The fatality rate along the river could have been 10% or more.
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 eastern half of our country from an epicenter on the New Madrid.
The February 11 seismic event in Arkansas tells us once again that the New Madrid Seismic Zone is still an active fault. It is only a matter of time before a giant earthquake will once again rip through the center of the United States. There is no way to stop the earthquake, but we can—and must—reduce the potential damage.
Preparation and Planning Make a Difference
A lesson for our country 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, but not by sticking our head in the sand.
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? You can’t say that anymore. 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. The books are also available from www.amazon.com, www.booksurge.com, and in selected bookstores around the country.
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Penny is traveling throughout the eastern half of the country on an extended book tour and is available for questions and radio/TV interviews by telephone. Review copies are available for the media upon request.