The scope of the earthquake in Haiti is beyond comprehension. The photos and video do not adequately relate the human anguish, suffering and pain experienced by those amid the destruction. This article is in no way intended to denigrate the people of Haiti, or take advantage of their suffering. Rather, it is intended to prod those who read it to at least think about what life would be like when it happens here – in Central Illinois.
During the winter of 1811–1812 the strongest earthquakes ever to hit the continental United States happened in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, centered at New Madrid, Missouri, along the Mississippi River about 35 miles south of Cairo, Illinois. There were four major earthquakes within days: the first, rated at a magnitude of 8.1, hit on December 16th, 1811. The second tremor occurred six hours later, rated at 8.2. After another 37 days, there was an 8.1 tremor and the largest of them all, at 8.3, 15 days after the third. In between these four major earthquakes, there were thousands of perceptible aftershocks of lesser magnitude.
The geological structure of the nation’s heartland made for an extensive area of impact. For example, in the 1906 San Francisco quake, magnitude 7.8, the area feeling effects of the tremor measured about 6,000 square miles. The New Madrid earthquakes, in comparison, were felt over an area of 50,000 square miles. Waves were created in the Mississippi River that raced upstream, giving the impression the river was flowing north. The crust of the earth visibly rippled as waves of energy spread out from the epicenter. Large areas of earth rose and other areas fell significantly. All along the sandy Mississippi River basin, the earth opened up and spouted massive sand blows, some still visible today. Many waterways shifted paths and, if there was no place for the water to go, lakes were instantly formed – such as Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Church bells rang as far east as Boston; sidewalks in Washington, D.C. cracked as a result of these tremors.
If anything can be considered fortunate in an event this destructive, it would be that the areas nearest to New Madrid were sparsely populated. Buildings were down; people died. Yet the toll of these massive earthquakes in terms of lives lost and property damaged was minimal in comparison to more recent major earthquakes.
If a level 8 magnitude earthquake were to occur today in this same area, major population centers like St. Louis and Memphis would suffer significant damage and high death tolls. A series of 8+ quakes within a month and a half like happened 200 years ago would result in suffering such as has never been seen in the United States. The lives of millions of Americans would be altered forever in the blink of an eye. People in the areas most affected would go from worrying about getting to work on time one day to worrying about finding food to eat the next. Those able to travel would be headed out of the areas of the most significant damage, headed for anywhere else. Roads would be ripped apart, power lines downed, cell phone systems dead. Pursuit of the American dream would suddenly become pursuit of a warm place to sleep, water to drink, and food.
The US Geological Survey says it is not a matter of if this will happen, but when will it happen. History will repeat itself. Will you be ready? http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/prepare/factsheets/NewMadrid/