We're not ready for the next big one.
"(The National Guard) can handle anything domestically, probably, with the exception of the New Madrid fault," Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner told an audience of William Woods University students Wednesday.
Danner is the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard and was recently appointed to the William Woods Board of Trustees. He has served in the position since 2009 and has held a long list of other military assignments. He and U.S. Army Gen. (Ret.) Frank J. Grass, formerly a member of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, spoke to students about the National Guard and the conflicts and issues likely to face the country and state in the future.
National Guard members train monthly and spend weeks each summer conducting drills. There are plans in place for natural disasters of every kind, strategies for responding to domestic conflict and terroristic threats.
It's the thought of a major earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone that really concerns Danner. The 150-mile fault line zigs and zags from Cairo, Illinois, through New Madrid in Missouri down to Arkansas. A large shake-up could effect up to 15 states, the American Geosciences Institute predicts.
It's not that the National Guard and government haven't planned for the potential quake.
"We're very well coordinated, and we'll be running a rehearsal of the New Madrid response in 2019," Grass said. "We learned a lot of lessons (about emergency response) during Hurricane Katrina."
On the civilian side, millions of Americans take part each year in the Great ShakeOut, a nationwide earthquake drill coordinated by FEMA, the U.S. Geological Survey and other organizations.
But if historical quakes are any indication, the next major earthquake along the New Madrid fault could be unlike anything in living memory.
"We've certainly planned for it, but it'll be nothing we're prepared for," Danner predicted.
From Dec. 16, 1811, to Feb. 7, 1812, a series of three 7-plus magnitude earthquakes followed by aftershocks lasting into 1813 quaked the area. Windows rattled hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C. Chimneys crumbled in St. Louis. Along the Mississippi River, bluffs collapsed, fissures opened in the ground and a wave swept upstream, temporarily reversing the mighty river's flow.
One eyewitness in New Madrid described the sun being blotted out by a sulfurous cloud and a terrible sound resembling "loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating." Some people, terrified of being crushed by an aftershock in their houses, built simple wooden huts to live in instead.
Relatively few deaths resulted from the quakes, as the area most severely effected was sparsely populated at the time. Today, however, a major city (Memphis, Tennessee) lies near the fault, and many thousands more people live near and above it. A major New Madrid quake will likely disrupt transportation, industry and energy production severely, the American Geosciences Institute has predicted.
The AGI also pointed out that unlike along the West Coast, many structures and buildings in the Midwest aren't built to withstand earthquakes.
No one knows when the next "big one" will arrive.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone is buried 100-200 feet underground, according to the Missouri Geological Survey. It's primarily monitored by using seismographs, instruments that can measure earthquakes large and small, to detect the frequency of micro-quakes along the fault.
Seismologist — earthquake scientists — also look at historical data, both recorded by people and in the soil and rock itself, to calculate the frequency of past major quakes along the fault. That allows them to guess how frequently large earthquakes occur along the fault.
The current best guess, the MGS states, is that the NMSZ is about 30 years overdue for a magnitude 6.3 earthquake — one strong enough to damage ordinary buildings and overturn heavy furniture. A magnitude 7.6 earthquake, as serious as the 1811-12 series, may arrive by 2069.
Seismologists project the shockwaves from a magnitude 7.6 quake in the NMSZ would reach Callaway County, resulting in slight-to-moderate damage in well-built buildings and some broken chimneys. However, the disruption to utilities could be severe and lasting.
"I've seen firsthand when there's unrest on the civil side," Danner said. "What happens when you don't have sewer, water, electric and gas for weeks at a time — and you have a population that's well-armed?"
With luck, we won't be finding out any time soon.
To learn more about earthquake awareness and preparedness, visit bit.ly/NMquakeready.