New Madrid Seismic Zone & Earthquake Preparedness

Washington, DC – When lawmakes in Washington, DC think about earthquake preparedness, they tend to think 'California.' Yesterday, a panel of experts convened to remind Congress about the potential danger that lies beneath a swath of the country's interior.

The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 are the stuff of legend. The Mississippi River ran backwards. Church bells rang a thousand miles away in Boston. Now seismologists say there's a seven- to ten percent chance that a similar quake will strike within 50 years. Somewhere along a zone that spans Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky AND Tennessee.

A less-intense shaker is even more likely. And its effects would still be devastating. Yet according to state officials like David Maxwell of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, "The biggest challenge we have is selling the need for preparedness on earthquakes. Because we do not live in a state where earthquakes are a regular occurrence, the thought tends to be, they will not happen."

State and federal agencies throughout the region are holding workshops and exercises aimed at more comprehensive response planning.

Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas chairs a subcommittee on emergency preparedness. He asked Maxwell about rumored plans to cut federal emergency management planning grants to the states. "So it would be a considerable detriment to state and local emergency management efforts? Maxwell: Yes, sir. That's putting it mildly.'"

Callen Hays is crisis management coordinator for Memphis Light, Gas and Water. He struggled through laryngitis to bring his message to Washington:

"It's kind of out of sight out of mind.' When people keep saying the big one's coming, the big one's coming, and it doesn't year after year, you know, sometimes it can get numb. But we take the threat as seriously as we can," Hays said.

For its part, the Memphis utility company is already replacing old cast-iron gas pipes with something less brittle. Critical communications and emergency operations are now located in a seismically-retrofitted building. On a broader scale, the U.S. Geological Survey is refining new technology that monitors infrastructure to pinpoint the most intense shaking. That's to help emergency crews prioritize their response.

One theme reverberated throughout this disaster planning discussion: In the event of a major catastrophe, even the most coordinated government response won't make up for a lack of individual awareness and self-reliance. Public service announcements and town halls don't seem to be enough. So officials are talking about how to use new tools to get the word out. Like You-Tube.