Map of New Madrid and Wabash fault regions

Is central US prepared for a major earthquake?

While earthquakes sometimes kill people directly through mudslides and flooding, most earthquake deaths are actually caused by collapsing infrastructure; hence the oft-repeated statement, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, bad buildings do.” The earthquake body count, and the depth and breadth of hardship and economic disruption, depend on the level of earthquake preparedness. Up-to-date construction methods, hardened infrastructure, and well-equipped disaster response teams minimize the impact of earthquakes.

Windybon recently commented on another forum, comparing the January 12, 2010 magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti to the February 27, 2010 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile:

Yes, that’s huge, but you’re going to see the difference between a country that is prepared for earthquakes (Chile) and one that isn’t (Haiti).

I replied:

The central U.S. isn’t.

I’m wondering what will happen when stresses that have accumulated around the New Madrid fault zone erupt again, either directly on the fault itself or elsewhere in the central US.

The central US terrain transmits seismic forces a considerable distance, so that any major earthquake could cause widespread destruction. There are natural gas pipelines, densely populated areas, and busy transportation corridors, including the Mississippi River itself, close to the fault zone. Much of the infrastructure has not been earthquake-hardened.

The 1811-1812 earthquakes were fearsome, but caused comparatively little damage, owing to the sparse population and almost nonexistent infrastructure in the region at that time.

New Madrid Seismic Zone

1812 New Madrid Earthquake

Uncovering Hidden Hazards in the Mississippi Valley

St. Louis University Earthquake Center

Southern Illinois University New Madrid Earthquake Information Pages

Fastac 6’s reply was telling:

Say goodbye to Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. None built for quakes, whatever that really means.

New Madrid fault is the basis for the 2011 national disaster drill. As a planner, let me be the first to say: we’d all be f—-d. A “Katrina level” event, and then some.

The lessons of history

Indeed, Chile has made the effort to prepare itself for seismic activity following the catastrophic magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake in 1960, which is the strongest earthquake yet recorded. The epicenter of the Valdivia quake was not far from that of the 2010 quake, which was just offshore of the Maule Region.

When it comes to earthquakes, history does tend to repeat itself, though not always on a predictable time frame. There is evidence of a previous severe earthquake and flood in Valdivia in 1575, and of several subsequent, somewhat lesser earthquakes.

“What, me worry?”

It’s human nature to look for excuses to ignore situations that are difficult to deal with. The Cleveland Plain Dealer article, New Madrid fault no problem, geophysicists Seth Stein and Eric Calais say, reports that these two scientists claim that the New Madrid fault is shutting down, so that it isn’t worth the expense to strengthen the infrastructure in the fault zone. But other scientists warn that Stein and Calais base their conclusion on too little evidence:

“Politicians don’t get re-elected spending lots of money on an event that may not happen in the next 50 years — until Katrina,” said geologist Gary Patterson of the University of Memphis’ Center for Earthquake Research and Information, known as CERI. “That absolutely changed the paradigm.”

The New Madrid situation is further complicated by the lack of scientific agreement on what the new findings mean.

“I’d hate to stick my own neck out and say there’s not going to be [another] earthquake” in the fault zone, said seismologist and CERI director Charles Langston. “That’s really a radical statement, based on a piece of data that has other interpretations.”



Other scientists aren’t convinced Stein and Calais are right about the New Madrid. Several note that GPS readings in China showed similarly slight intraplate movements before the devastating Sichuan quake last August, which killed 69,000.

Yes, worry!

A careful reading of that same article reveals that Stein and Calais never actually claimed that there is no earthquake risk, but rather, that the seismic action could occur in the nearby Wabash fault zone instead of on the New Madrid fault itself:

Assuming Stein and Calais are right, where might the New Madrid strain migrate? What fault system would be the next to switch on, and when? The researchers don’t know.

“One would think that the most likely place is to move up north into either southern Illinois or southern Indiana,” Stein said. He and Calais are working with other researchers on a computer model that may help show what’s going on.

As the above map suggests, that’s certainly close enough for discomfort to major populated areas and transportation corridors. I am not a seismologist, but I would suggest that the seismic risk warrants further investigation in both the New Madrid and Wabash fault regions.

So any way you slice it, there’s a significant seismic risk in the central US, and residents and business owners in those states need to think about how to cope with it.

Federal boondoggles bleed money and attention away from real priorities

Not long ago, the New Madrid fault enjoyed a brief flurry of attention in the media and the trade press. I remember seeing a very informative show, part of the Mega-Disasters series on The History Channel, about present-day seismic dangers in the New Madrid fault zone. But as of this writing, only a cursory mention of the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquake – and no mention of the Mega-Disasters episode – is on their website.

The July 2007 issue of TVPPA News, which describes itself as the magazine for electric system management in the Tennessee Valley, featured an article entitled “New Madrid: Is the Valley Quake-Ready?”

When Don Drumm and several of his TVA colleagues dealt with a New Madrid fault earthquake late last year, it was only a drill. The consequence of the real thing, he said, could be described with one word. “I wouldn’t call it catastrophic,” he said. “I’d call it cataclysmic.”

As far as I have been able to determine, earthquake preparedness in the New Madrid zone has departed from the public’s radar screen. Little or nothing is being said about it at present. One obvious reason is that the pre-Climategate campaign against “global warming,” the current economic depression, and the misnamed “economic stimulus” tax-and-spend program, have bled away both attention and available funds.

With all the deceptive fanfare about the “economic stimulus money” that was supposed to be spent on “shovel-ready infrastructure projects” throughout the US, I have heard absolutely no mention whatsoever of any plans to strengthen the buildings, highways, rail corridors, fuel pipelines, and other infrastructure in the vicinity of New Madrid. Taxpayers’ money is being squandered on all manner of ridiculous, irrelevant, and counterproductive causes and beneficiaries – everything from bailing out Wall Street arch-criminals to nonexistent “green jobs” to crippling what’s left of domestic industry by enacting draconian regulations against “global warming.” There was never any intention of allowing states and cities, much less private companies and organizations, to set their own priorities regarding how best to prepare for the future.

Crying wolf

As readers of my old blog already know, the recent “Climategate” scandal has eroded the credibility of the scientific community in general. The long and the short of it is that the “powers that be” in the scientific community have been caught “crying wolf” for several decades. So when scientists tell us to account for seismic risks in our plans to build or upgrade infrastructure in the central US, it’s no surprise that financially beleaguered cities, states, contractors, utility companies, and other corporations and organizations ignore their warnings and go on with “business as usual.”

The answer? State sovereignty and local privatization

We need to oust the federal government from control over our finances, our commerce (including, but not limited to, health care), and our disaster preparedness. At the VERY least, we need a Constitutional amendment to repeal the flagrantly abused “commerce clause.” I do not believe that this is enough. I see the need for dismantling the federal government once and for all, in much the same way as the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. The federal government has failed in all of the duties for which it was originally formed. Even the smallest of the individual States are big enough to take care of themselves. It’s time for a new “velvet divorce” – stateside version. The way to get there without bloodshed is by educating people, and that is what this blog aims to do.

Watch this space for more on this topic!

Rebel flag flies when the Berlin Wall comes down
Dixie flag flies as a symbol of liberty as the Berlin Wall comes down

Update: April 30, 2013

Nothing whatsoever has been done to address this peril in the US. Bailouts and “crony capitalism” (which is not capitalism at all, but rather, corruption) are the enemies of accountability.

Where private companies own the infrastructure, provided that it is known that the government will not bail anyone out, companies that fail to harden their structures against disasters would be unable to get insurance and would stand to lose everything.

That is why the massive 2010 earthquake in Chile caused few deaths and little damage. Yes, I am personally acquainted with people who were in Chile at that time and who witnessed the earthquake. The buildings and infrastructure were built to take it.

The evidence shows that Chile has become a first world nation while the US is ceasing to be so.

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