Memphis, TN – The New Madrid Seismic zone lies within the central Mississippi Valley, extending from northeast Arkansas, through southeast Missouri, western Tennessee, western Kentucky to southern Illinois. It's responsible for the legendary quakes of 1811 and 1812 that sent the Mississippi River backwards, created Reelfoot Lake in far northwest Tennessee, rang church bells in Charleston, South Carolina and caused kettles in fireplaces to sway in New York. These earthquakes were felt as far north as Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information in Memphis say large earthquakes occur along the New Madrid Seismic Zone every 300 to 500 years. They believe this region is due for a large earthquake of magnitude 7 to 8.
Today, if a large earthquake or series of earthquakes occurred along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the damage would be much greater than it was in 1811 and 1812 when the region was sparsely populated.
Dr. Seth Stein, William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at Northwestern University, says that the New Madrid Zone is cooling, and may eventually turn off.
But the scientists at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information strongly disagree with Stein's assertions. Public policy in regard to emergency preparedness could be impacted. If the New Madrid Seismic Zone should shake as great as the quakes of 1811 & 1812, transportation and national distribution will certainly be impacted, perhaps even halted.
Dr. Chris Cramer, Research Associate Professor, Center for Earthquake Research and Information, CERI, says that Stein is using faulty science. Should we prepare for a catastrophic earthquake? Yes, says, Jim Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
The United States has never experienced a multi-state natural disaster. The largest and most devastating to date is Katrina, which struck Mississippi and Louisiana.
Wilkinson says that up to 12 million people are at risk in the Mid-South and Mid-West, 2 million in Memphis and another 2 million in St. Louis, with the rest in rural areas and towns in between.
Currently, CUSEC or the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, is conducting local and state level emergency preparedness planning sessions. Beginning this summer, they will conduct regional meetings to mitigate the impacts of large earthquakes.
According to CUSEC and CERI, earthquakes in the Central U.S. are felt much further than those along the west coast. For instance, on April 29, 2003, there was an magnitude 4.6 at Fort Payne, Alabama that was felt across nine states, including Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.
In California, rumbles from earthquakes are rarely felt out of state. On August 4, 2007, a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck the Bay Area. It was felt only in central California.