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The Hammer of Thor: Part 1

YOWUSA.COM, 05-July-04
Dale Caruso

1811 New Madrid QuakeAlthough most Americans associate earthquakes with California, the earthquakes that shook the Mississippi valley in southeast Missouri from December 16, 1811, through February 7, 1812, are among the most violent quakes ever to hit the North American continent in recorded history.  A quake of equal magnitude would result in great loss of life, estimates show that depending on the day of the week, time of day, and degree of flooding that results, fatalities could number over one hundred thousand, injuries over half a million, and homeless 6.5 million. 

Scientists and experts believe through research and public awareness may be able to prevent such losses.  The problem is that local governments, developers, and the public just isn't listening ... opting instead for the philosophy that "ignorance is bliss."

The day the earth came apart

Here are some statements from those who felt the violent shaking of the New Madrid on one February morning in 1812.

"There was a great shaking of the earth this morning.  Tables and chairs turned over and knocked around - all of us knocked out of bed.  The roar I thught (sic) would leave us deaf if we lived.  It was not a storm.  when you could hear, all you cold (sic) hear was screams from people and animals.  What are we gonna do ?  You cannot fight it cause you do not know how.  It is not something that you can see.  In a storm you can see the sky and it shows dark clouds and you know that you might get strong winds but this you can not see anything but a house that just lays in a pile on the ground - not scattered around and trees that just falls over with the roots still on it.  If we do not get away from here the ground is going to eat us alive." —George Heinrich Crist

"All nature seemed running into chaos as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks tumbled into the water."  —John Bradbury

"... about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious (sic) vapor, causing total darkness.  The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do - the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi - the current of which was retrogade (sic) for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed -- formed a scene truly horrible.

From that time until about sunrise, a number of lighter shocks occurred; at which time one still more violent than the first took place, with the same accompaniments as the first, and the terror which had been excited in everyone, and indeed in all animal nature, was now, if possible doubled.  The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds can be exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from, than near to the river.

The earth was horribly torn to pieces - the surface of hundreds of acres, was, from time to time, covered over, in various depths, by the sand which issued from the fissures, which were made in great numbers all over this country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which it must be remarked, was the matter generally thrown up.

In some places, however, there was a substance somewhat resembling coal, or impure stone coal, thrown up with the sand.  It is impossible to say what the depths of the fissures or irregular breaks were; we have reason to believe that some of them are very deep."  — Eliza Bryan

The many and repeated shocks of Earthquakes which have been felt in our southern and southwestern States, indicate that there has been some terrible, and perhaps destructive eruption of the Earth.

Since the settlement of our country, we have no record of such dreadful convulsions of the Earth as is recounted in the following pages.

New York Evening Post - Feb. 1812.

On the evening of Dec. 16, 1811, the Captain of the Mississippi River's inaugural steamboat -- the New Orleans -- tethered his new ship to one of the river's many islands before retiring for the night.

When he awakened a few hours later, the island was gone , pulled beneath the surface by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever to strike the continental United States.

The magnitude-8.0+ earthquakes were strong enough to ring church bells in Boston, redirect the course of the mighty Mississippi River and alter much of the landscape around New Madrid, MO.  Over the next few months, several more magnitude-8 (or lesser) quakes rocked the area, and by winter's end most of the homes within 250 miles of New Madrid Fault Zone were damaged or destroyed.

Survivors reported being awakened by a terrifying roar and scenes of the earth heaving and rolling like an ocean tempest.

The Missouri of early-19th century America was largely undeveloped so precise estimates of death and damage were hard to come by.  A rough estimate of the white and slave population of the area in 1811 is about 5 ,000.  Summing all the anecdotal evidence indicates the death toll was probably near 500.  There were probably at least another 500 boatmen killed along the river that were not counted among the residents.  In addition, there were more than 10,000 Indians living in the area and the death toll amongst them was as bad as the whites.

On shaky ground

New Madrid Fault SystemHowever, what if the mantle deep beneath New Madrid was to shake again?  What if a magnitude-8.0 earthquake buckled that same area of land in early 21st century America?

These questions are being asked by researchers and scientists at The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), The Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) at The University of Memphis, The Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE) at the University of Illinois, St. Louis University's Earthquake Center and many other like-minded organizations and institutions.

Earthquakes are one of the most common and most destructive of natural disasters.  Destruction from earthquakes has been at times immense in both scope of damage and cost to human life and social structure.  Unlike a hurricane, with an earthquake there is no warning; there is only a horrible aftermath.

Attempts at accurately predicting an earthquake well in advance as to provide adequate warning, have been thus far unreliable at best.  Attempts by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) to develop a reliable method of accurately predicting earthquakes have failed miserably.  In fact, the USGS, much to the dismay of many, has decided to completely get out of the "earthquake prediction" research business.

Although earthquakes in the central and eastern United States are less frequent than in the western United States, they affect much larger areas and the pattern of destruction has tended to be more widespread and severe than their West Coast counterparts.  In addition, the frequency of temblors on the New Madrid per unit length is about the same as on the San Andreas.  The New Madrid runs under mostly unpopulated farmland, and the shaking is not felt by so many.

"Why does the Central United States have more large earthquakes than expected?  Why is it so different from California?  The answers to these questions are still unknown, but scientists now question whether there might be fundamental differences between the geologic processes at, and away from, plate boundaries.  The New Madrid region is far away from any tectonic plate boundary, and thus applying what has been learned from studies of places like the San Andreas system in California to the New Madrid region may not be appropriate."  These were some of the questions that the USGS attempted to address in their Earthquake Hazards Study, FS-121-02.

According to Joan Gomberg and Eugene Schweig, lead geologists for this report, "(The potential earthquake) hazard also depends on how amplitudes of earthquake waves die out as they move away from the earthquake source to the affected site.

It is well known that wave energy decreases much more slowly in the Central and Eastern United States than in the West.

For the same size earthquake, this leads to greater shaking over larger areas, or higher hazard, in the Central and Eastern United States.  Earthquake shaking also may be significantly amplified or damped by the soils immediately beneath a site.

This is particularly true for thick sediments that underlie most of the New Madrid seismic zone.  Recent research has highlighted the potential amplification of ground shaking by these thick sediments and has begun to shed light on the physical processes that cause this.  Because characterization of this amplification requires detailed mapping of the soils and their properties, amplification characteristics are not included in the National Seismic Hazard Maps."

Earthquake ComparisonAn illustration of this is shown by two areas affected by earthquakes of similar magnitude-the 1895 Charleston, Missouri, earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone and the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake.  Red indicates minor to major areas of significant damage to buildings and their contents.  Yellow indicates shaking felt, but little or no damage to objects, such as dishes.

What a difference the decades make

In 1811, the Ohio Valley and central Mississippi Valley was were sparsely populated.  Today, the region is home to millions of people, including those in the cities of Cincinnati, Nashville, Little Rock, St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee.  Adding to the danger, most structures in the region were not built to withstand earthquake shaking, as they have been in California and Japan, despite an awareness of magnitude of the 1811 event, and the knowledge that the area is truly living on borrowed time.

Depending on the source, the possibility of another major event along the New Madrid Fault ranges anywhere from 25 to 90 percent probability of such a quake within 50 years.  (Current USGS figures are that in the next fifty years, the probability of a 6.5+ is 40%, the probability of a 7.5 to 8.0+ is 10 %.)

Despite the best efforts of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), The Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) at The University of Memphis, St. Louis University's Earthquake Center and many other like-minded organizations and institutions earthquake preparations are still scattered at best.

Most structures in the region were not built to withstand earthquake shaking and unlike California and Japan were comprehensive building codes are in place and strictly enforced, the implementing and enforcement of similar codes along the New Madrid Fault system have lagged far behind.

If a series of earthquakes even approaching that of the 1811-1812 series of tremblers were to occur today, the results would be, in a word, catastrophic!

Sam Penny (Author of The 7.9 Scenario novels: Memphis 7.9 and Broken River (2004) Received Honorable Mention in 2004 Darrell Award competition for Best Science Fiction novel at MidSouthCon.)

"My greatest concern is our country.  It is simply not prepared for a disaster of this magnitude.  We are dependent upon advanced technology that leaves us without recourse when there is a failure in some strategic system.  And when the systems fail the result is chaos."

Basing his first approximation, on USGS shaking intensity estimates and the US Economic Census figures of 2000, Penny goes on to say that, "My initial SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) is that a 7.9 magnitude earthquake on the New Madrid will result in a loss of 10% of our Gross Domestic Product."

This had not even looked at the loss of life in the area, which would also be disastrous.  Yet, the Midwest is not preparing for this catastrophe.  They are ignoring it.  They have little to no earthquake preparedness guidelines, and their building and safety codes will not stand up to a 7.9 shaker, as Penny has pointed out.  Penny has a right to be concerned about the area.  He is shouting, and no one is listening.