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May 19, 2013

The Big One: Preparing for mid-America earthquake

It’s a bleak scenario. A massive earthquake along the New Madrid fault kills or injures 60,000 people in Tennessee. A quarter of a million people are homeless. The Memphis airport – the country’s biggest air terminal for packages – goes off-line. Major oil and gas pipelines across Tennessee rupture, causing shortages in the Northeast. In Missouri, another 15,000 people are hurt or dead. Cities and towns throughout the central U.S. lose power and water for months. Losses stack up to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Fortunately, this magnitude 7.7 temblor is not real but rather a scenario imagined by the Mid-America Earthquake Center and the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. The goal of their 2008 analysis was to plan for a modern recurrence of quakes that happened along the New Madrid fault more than 200 years ago, in 1811 and 1812.

No one alive has experienced a major earthquake in the Midwest, yet geologists say it’s only a matter of time. That puts a lot of uncertainty on disaster officials. Their earthquake precautions – quake-resistant building codes, for example – have never been reality tested. Some question if enough has been done to strengthen existing buildings, schools and other infrastructure. It is difficult to prepare for a geological catastrophe the public cannot see and has never experienced.

“We mostly react to disasters, and it’s been extremely rare that we get ahead of things,” said Claire Rubin, a disaster response specialist in Arlington, Va. “A lot of hard problems don’t get solved. They get moved around and passed along.”

Steven L. Lueker is among disaster response officials who worry about the New Madrid fault and another fault to the north, in the Wabash Valley. He’s the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County in Southern Illinois, and he rattles off likely impact statistics. One of the most important: The New Madrid fault is expected to generate a large-scale earthquake within the next 50 years.

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