New Madrid Earthquake Of 1811

New Madrid earthquake of 1811, the strongest series of earthquakes ever felt in America rocked the Mississippi Valley. Devastation was widespread. Scientists predict it will happen again.

On December 16, 1811, the 400 residents of New Madrid, Missouri, were shaken out of their beds at two in the morning by a violent earthquake. Huge cracks split the ground. The waters of the Mississippi rose and fell like a great tide. Giant waves rose up and swept north, giving the impression that the river was actually flowing backwards. Boats along the river were engulfed, capsized, and theeair crews drowned.

The "New Orleans" was one of the lucky ones. The first steamboat to ply the Mississippi River, she was embarked on her maiden voyage. At dusk she tied up at an island in the middle of the stream. Then, in the wee hours, the boat was nearly swamped by a series of enormous waves. As the deck pitched and yawed, the crew and the few passengers on board held on for their lives. Later, one of the crew said it was like being in the middle of an ocean during a violent storm.

All along the riverbank, high bluffs crumbled into the water. Seemingly solid ground undulated in waves. Old river channels slammed shut and new ones opened, changing the course of the stream forever. One large lake had its water suddenly replaced by sand. Another lake, Reelfoot, was created in a matter of moments.

Trees toppled or were drowned when the land sank suddenly beneath them. Log cabins scattered like match sticks in New Madrid but, luckily, only one person was killed by falling debris.

Effects of the quake were widespread. Damage was reported as far east as Charleston, South Carolina and Washington, DC. In Boston, Massachusetts, 1,000 miles away, church bells were made to ring. The effects of the quake were felt as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Canada.

The gigantic shake in the early morning of December 16 was only the first in a series of four. There was a second shock hours later. A third quake rocked the area on January 23 and a fourth -- the biggest of all -- was felt on February 7. Between the major quakes, there were thousands of aftershocks.

It is not known how many were killed or injured in the New Madrid Earthquakes, but casualties were probably light. In 1811-1812, the area was sparsely populated. Today, of course, that is far from the case. If the same thing had happened in the year 2000, say during the late afternoon, casualties would have been staggering and property loses would tally in the billions of dollars.

Some scientists claim that the so-called "Big One" will not happen on the West Coast at all. Rather, a surprising number of them argue that the next sizable shake might occur along the New Madrid Fault, probably by the year 2010. Other authorities, like The Central United States Earthquake Consortium, say there is a 90 percent chance of a magnitude six or seven earthquake hitting the Mississippi Valley within the next 50 years. The National Earthquake Center of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is more general in its prediction. It suggests that the possibility of such an earthquake "might occur as soon as next year or as late as several thousand years hence." But all have come to the same conclusion. Disaster will strike the Mississippi again.

The New Madrid Fault extends from eastern Arkansas to about the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It is called a failed rift -- that is, a fault not located near one of the several large tectonic plates that float on the hot mantle of the earth. Most earthquakes -- like those in California and Japan -- occur where the plates grind past each other. The geology in these earthquake zones is different. The ground here is warmer from the heat coming from inside the earth -- somewhat elastic. Not so at New Madrid.

Here the ground is cold and brittle. When it moves, there is no elasticity so there is more widespread damage. A sizable quake, such as the ones in 1811-1812, would cause extensive devastation and loss of life. The cities of Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri would be hit head-on. There would be enormous damage in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, Indiana and Mississippi. Yet, some people in these areas are barely aware that the possibility of a major earthquake exists.

However, there are voices crying in the wilderness and they are beginning to be heard. In 1983, at the urging of the USGS, the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee formed the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC). The organization is currently embarked on an intensive program of public education and awareness. Through their urging, for instance, earthquake education is now included in the curriculum of public schools in many CUSEC states.

Furthermore, an extensive scientific study has been launched to study area soils to determine where earthquake damage would be the most severe. And most of the CUSEC states have adopted building codes with earthquake design standards to meet the coming emergency.

Authorities in California know, even with their extensive earthquake preparations, that if a large earthquake hits a highly populated area there will be wide-spread devastation. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake that struck Northridge in 1994 cost 33 lives and destroyed property worth $20 billion.

How many more deaths would be caused in the vulnerable Midwest by a similar quake, or stronger, around rush hour? The prospect is almost too fearsome to contemplate.

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