December 11, 2011
James Bruggers: Reporter
(502) 582-4645

Series of huge tremors occurred 200 years ago; New Madrid quakes likely to come again

Two centuries ago Friday, the first of three powerful earthquakes along the New Madrid fault zone jolted the lower Midwest and shook much of the nation.

Buildings were flattened near the epicenter in Arkansas, and chimneys toppled hundreds of miles away. Boats on the Mississippi River were overturned. And large tracts of land became like liquid, swallowing croplands, grasslands and bottomland forests, leaving surface scars visible to this day. 

 Over three months in 1811-12, the quakes and hundreds of aftershocks rocked the Midwest and upper South, including portions of Kentucky. They remain among the most powerful earthquakes to ever strike the United States, occurring just across the Mississippi River near Western Kentucky.

And on the bicentennial of the New Madrid quakes, geologists and emergency planners say future quakes along the fault are certain — and the U.S. Geological Survey expects that eventually, some will be very damaging.

The USGS has projected a 6 percent to 10 percent likelihood of a 7.5-magnitude quake in the next 50 years, roughly on par with the massive quakes of 200 years ago. The agency predicts a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of a weaker magnitude 6 quake, which would still cause damage, during the same time period.

Steve Oglesby, the deputy earthquake program manager for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said quakes the magnitude of those in 1811-12 would be devastating in this modern era.

“It makes me concerned about what we will face when that big shaking occurs again,” Oglesby said. “What we will be dealing with today are collapsed structures, and people trapped underneath, calling for help.”

The 1811-12 earthquakes occurred when relatively few people lived in the region. Louisville had recorded just 1,357 residents in the 1810 census, for example.

And because there also wasn’t much to fall on people, the number of deaths from those quakes is believed to be fairly small, said Robert A. Williams, the Central and Eastern United States Earthquake Program coordinator with the USGS.

But millions of people now live in the Memphis and St. Louis metropolitan areas, which are likely to face the most deadly damage, according to planning documents. Western Kentucky will also likely be hit hard.

“The news accounts of (recent major earthquakes in other countries) are what we will have in Western Kentucky, in Murray, in Paducah, and some of the smaller communities,” Oglesby said. “It will be an unbelievable scene.”

“Anybody that lives in this area has to worry about it,” said Paducah Mayor William F. Paxton III. “But you can’t just live your life around it. You have to go on, and work toward getting new businesses and new industries. If it happens, you address it.”

Hickman Mayor Charles Murphy said his Fulton County town with about 2,500 residents would “really be in trouble” in a major quake.

“As a city, we don’t have much to work with,” he said. “We have a dump truck and backhoe and we have a volunteer fire department. We’d just have to try to make do, and hopefully we could depend on someone ... to come help us.”

The New Madrid earthquakes were “very big,” Williams said, with the largest likely between magnitude 7 and magnitude 8, putting them on par with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, which killed 3,000 people.

They were more powerful than the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed 316,000 people, injured 300,000 and displaced 1.3 million.

Hundreds of quakes

The first New Madrid fault quake of 1811, a magnitude 7.7, struck early in the morning, and a magnitude 7 aftershock came five hours later.

In Louisville, 380 miles from the epicenters in northeast Arkansas, Jared Brooks began documenting the intensity of each quake with pendulums. He went on to describe hundreds of them in a detailed account.

The shaking that first day “became constant, at a dreadful rate to tremendous, so as to threaten the town with total destruction,” he wrote on Dec. 16, according to published historical accounts.

Though the town was not destroyed, Brooks wrote that a “great noise was produced by the agitation of all the loose matter in town ... the general consternation is great, and the damage done considerable; gable ends parapets and chimneys of many houses are thrown down,” according to the 1882 book “History of the Ohio Falls Cities and their Counties,” by L.A. Williams & Co.

People were awakened by the shaking in New York City and Charleston, S.C.

On Jan. 23, 1812, at 9:15 a.m., a 7.5-magnitude quake struck New Madrid. Because the Ohio River was frozen over, there was less river traffic and fewer observers, but there were reports of ground warping, new fissures and severe landslides, according to a USGS account.

The final major quake in the series, estimated at magnitude 7.7, was at 3:45 a.m. on Feb. 7, and was followed by several destructive shocks. The town of New Madrid, Mo., was destroyed, and in St. Louis, “many houses were damaged severely and their chimneys were thrown down,” according to the USGS.

Jefferson County resident Mathias M. Speed was sleeping on a boat in the Mississippi River near New Madrid on Feb. 7, 1812, and later wrote about his experience for the Bardstown Repository newspaper, which was reprinted in the Kentucky Gazette, another newspaper of the day.

“About 3 o’clock on the morning of the 7th,” he wrote, “we were waked by the violent agitation of the boat, attended with a noise more tremendous and terrific than I can describe or any one conceive, who was not present or near to such a scene — the constant discharge of a heavy cannon might give some idea of the noise for loudness, but this was infinitely more terrible, on account of its appearing to be subterraneous.”

Two hundred years later, the USGS considers the New Madrid fault zone a serious threat, Williams said. In recent years, geologists who look for clues of past earthquakes to help predict when more might strike have gained a better understanding of the region and the risk it presents, he said.

“In the last 15 years, we have learned a lot, and one of those important things, is that it wasn’t just a single episode,” Williams said. “Sequences of large earthquakes have happened at least twice before, and perhaps three times before.”

The two most recent were double quakes that happened around 1450 and 900, he said.

Thousands of deaths

Government officials and academic researchers have looked at a variety of worst-case scenarios for future quakes, and one completed in 2009 by the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Virginia Tech researchers assumes three large quakes occurring at the roughly the same time, at 2 a.m. when most people are home and casualties are likely to be less severe.

Still, the study projected 86,000 casualties, including 3,500 deaths in eight states. Nearly 715,000 buildings would be destroyed. Some 3,500 bridges would be damaged. About 2.6 million households would be without electricity and 1.1 million households would be without drinking water.

Road, rail, air and river travel would be severely limited.

In southwest Indiana, as many as 6,800 buildings would be destroyed and as many as 80 people might be killed. In Kentucky, as many as 24,500 buildings would be destroyed and 287 people killed.

A worst-case scenario for Jefferson County could be 171 damaged buildings and as many as nine injuries but no fatalities, according to records provided by the state.

Kentucky officials said they are working with their counterparts in other states, in local government and in the federal government to prepare for a big earthquake.

Plan for disaster

Earlier this year, they conducted a weeklong drill that simulated their response to a worst-case scenario. They have also increased their public education campaign that seeks to make everyone in Kentucky, especially in Western Kentucky, aware of the risks and the steps they can take to protect themselves, said Buddy Rogers, Division of Emergency Management spokesman.

Everyone should have a family earthquake plan including a strategy to account for each other, Oglesby said. People also need an emergency kit of food, water, medicine and cash that will stretch for three days, he said.

“If you live in Western Kentucky, you should have a five- to seven-day kit,” Oglesby said.

But it can be hard to keep people’s attention focused when a big quake may not seem imminent.

Many people prepared emergency kits two decades ago when climatologist Iben Browning caused a media sensation by predicting a major earthquake would strike the New Madrid region about Dec. 3, 1990, said Murphy, the Hickman mayor, and Chan Case, the mayor of Wickliffe, another far Western Kentucky town.

“My wife and I had all the water and blankets and batteries,” Case said.

But the prediction, which was widely disregarded by seismologists, never came true.

“As time goes by, you quit replenishing,” Murphy said. “It’s on people’s minds now, but they just don’t do anything about it. I am one of them.”

Over time, structures will be better built to withstand damage from earthquakes, potentially reducing damage and casualties, said George E. Mann, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Housing, Building and Construction.

Kentucky adopted its first statewide building codes in 1980 that apply to new construction and major renovations, and since then, their seismic safety provisions have become more protective, he said.

They are the most stringent in Western Kentucky’s seismic zone, as well as another seismic zone in a part of Eastern Kentucky, Mann said.

There are no requirements in Kentucky that existing buildings be retrofitted for earthquake safety, he said.

ShakeOut planned

On Feb. 7, marking two centuries since the last of the big New Madrid quakes, residents of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama are scheduled to participate in the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut. Officials will ask them to practice what they would need to do during a big quake: Drop to the ground, take cover under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on until the shaking stops.

But in least three Western Kentucky cities — Paducah, Hickman and Wickliffe — there are no other plans yet to mark the anniversary.

“I think it’s something we’d want to forget,” said Paxton, the Paducah mayor. “We just have to hope that it doesn’t happen like that again.”