By MARK EVANS
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
When much of southern Missouri rumbled with a 4.0 earthquake on Nov. 18, the realization that a major quake along the New Madrid Fault is likely to happen at some point in the future once again surfaced.
The giant fault had been largely quiet for some time. It drew worldwide media to New Madrid, Mo., in December 1990, after Dr. Iben Browning, a self-styled climatologist, projected that a major quake would hit the fault on or around Dec. 3 of that year.
When a 4.7 quake did hit the region that September, Browning’s prediction suddenly seemed less farcical.
Dec. 3, 1990 came and went, however, with no seismic activity and concerns about the fault gradually faded.
The fault, though, is widely expected to have a major event at some point and the Nov. 18 rumbling brought the topic back to public attention.
1811-12 QUAKES WERE HORRIFIC
The New Madrid Fault famously had one series of major convulsions. From November 1811 through March 1812, several earthquakes estimated to have been in the 7.0 to 8.0 range ravaged the region.
The most famous occurrence took place on Feb. 7, 1812. Probably the largest of the quakes hit and the Mississippi River was greatly affected. According to eyewitnesses, a wall of water, some 15 to 20 feet high, arose, hovering several seconds, before crashing back into the banks and causing the renowned surge of the river back to the north.
It also toppled miles of trees, collapsed banks, swallowed up islands, and created Realfoot Lake.
Descriptions of the event were horrifying.
Church bells were rung by the quake as far away as Boston.
At that time, the area was much more lightly populated with few two-story or taller buildings and no paved infrastructure to speak of.
A 6.5 to 8.0 quake in the 21st century would be cataclysmic for the region, St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve included.
According to the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) website, there is a 7-10 percent chance of an earthquake of the 1811-12 magnitude striking within a 50-year period, but a 25 to 40 percent chance of a 6.0 or higher quake hitting in a 50-year span.
“Our greatest concerns are magnitude 6.0-7.6 events, which do have significant probabilities in the near future,” the SEMA site said. “Damaging earthquakes of this magnitude are very likely within the lifetimes of our children.”
PREPARING FOR ANOTHER QUAKE
How prepared are we for a repeat of the 1811-12 quakes?
“I don’t think anybody’s going to be prepared for one the size of the (1812) New Madrid type quake,” said Felix Meyer, Ste. Genevieve County emergency management director, “but the state is working on plans and MoDOT (the Missouri Department of Transportation) is working on evacuation plans, continuously updating them.”
He noted that SEMA has a section dedicated to the issue and that the. He recommended SEMA’s website, https://sema.dps.mo.gov/, as a good source of information.
“In fact, after the 4.0, they kind of implemented that plan to see what did work and what didn’t work,” Meyer said. “They activated EOC and some other things – made it into a drill, basically.”
Meyer said initial reports were that the exercise went smoothly.
“I haven’t gotten the final report, but from the initial readout, everything seemed to be working fine,” he said. “We have our evacuation buildings set up, the Legion hall in town and the KC Hall in Bloomsdale. Of course, you don’t know if those buildings are going to withstand it, either.”
He noted that Trinity Baptist Church in St. Mary has expressed interest in being a site, also.
This, he said, will “have things spread out throughout the county.” He noted that firehouses have emergency generators for power and could be utilized.
“The biggest problem is getting the first responders to the place and getting the people out of the areas,” Meyer said. “Transportation will be the issue. When we start losing bridges and that kind of stuff, that will be the hardest part. The state is working on evacuation plans. They’re taking people from the southeast, all over the state. They’re trying to figure out how to do that. They may have to use the river because of the transportation situation.”
Locally, plans are being made. The county commissioners attended a session during the Southeast Missouri Commissioners monthly meeting Sept. 22 in Poplar Bluff. Robbie Myers with the Emergency Management Agency (EMA) said the organization is working on the New Madrid Systematic Plan for a magnitude earthquake. They have two consolidated assistance sites the first site is in Poplar Bluff, and the second site is in Eureka, Mo. They are working on doing a full-scale exercise in April of 2024 around the timeline of the eclipse on how to handle a magnitude earthquake in the Southeast region.
“We’re making plans,” Meyer said. “The county is trying to get all the roads the best they can, but money’s always an issue. You can’t make everything earthquake-proof. New buildings are built to the new standards, but a lot of the old buildings in town are not built to any standard at all. There could be a building collapse in the downtown area. Depending on the amount of shock, a lot of older buildings would be inclined to collapse.”