National Guard March 2012 : Page 36
G UARD R OOTS : T HE N EW M ADRID E ARTHQUAKE Plains Shook The Day the By Michelle Queiser When Guard leaders in the Midwest consider their worst possible disasters, one event stands out: an earthquake like the one that hit 200 years ago 36 N THE PREDAWN hours of Feb. 7, 1812, residents of southeast Missouri awoke to the rocking and shaking of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. It was the third and largest quake to strike the area in less than two months, and would cause devastation that can still be seen 200 years later. The remaining evidence of the quake is a reminder for National Guardsmen across the Midwest who plan and train today for a repeat of that almost unbelievable event. I | Na tional Guard
The Day The Plains Shook
When Guard leaders in the Midwest consider their worst possible disasters, one event stands out: an earthquake like the one that hit 200 years ago
IN THE PREDAWN hours of Feb. 7, 1812, residents of southeast Missouri awoke to the rocking and shaking of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.
It was the third and largest quake to strike the area in less than two months, and would cause devastation that can still be seen 200 years later.
The remaining evidence of the quake is a reminder for National Guardsmen across the Midwest who plan and train today for a repeat of that almost unbelievable event.
The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 rank as some of the largest in U.S. history. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), they are by far the largest ever east of the Rocky Mountains and affected an area 10 times larger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
“It was more devastating because of the type of land and soil in this area, which is a lot of floodplains and it’s soft,” says Charles Machon, the Missouri National Guard museum director. “Witnesses reported the land moved like waves.”
The first of the three earthquakes hit Dec. 16, 1811, and is estimated by the USGS to have been a magnitude 7. 7. The second, on Jan. 23, 1812, is estimated to have been a 7.5.
The third quake was most devastating, in part, because its epicenter was located closest to the town of New Madrid, Mo.
More than 200 moderate to large aftershocks occurred between the first shock and March 15, 1812.
The earthquakes caused landslides along hills and steep bluffs, and permanently uplifted large areas of land, while other large areas sank and flooded with water, all making rich prairie land unfit for farming.
Waves across the Mississippi River overturned boats, destroyed river banks and made whole islands disappear. Chimneys were toppled as far away as Cincinnati.
Eyewitness accounts in The New Madrid Earthquakes by James Lal Penick Jr. Give a vivid description of not only what people saw, but their mental and emotional distress.
“Water spouted to great heights, as if it were pressed ‘out of the pores of the earth,’” James Fletcher told The Pittsburgh Gazette.
Fletcher described a frightening scene along the Mississippi River.
“He believed that the whole country was sinking and fled in horror from the river,” the Gazette reported. “The agitation of the earth was so great that it was with difficulty any could stand on their feet, and some could not.”
Many in southwest Missouri had fled to New Madrid between the initial earthquake Dec. 16 and Feb. 4, but as shocks began to increase, residents and refugees in New Madrid no longer trusted the shelter of their homes.
By Feb. 7, a mass evacuation had taken place, according to Penick’s book.
“The banks of the Mississippi River collapsed and parts of the town of New Madrid sank,” says Machon.
Even as their town flooded, residents faced more obstacles as they fled.
“In some instances the bottoms of streams, lakes and ponds were actually thrust up, their waters running off to flood the surrounding land to a depth of one to three feet,” wrote Penick. “While some areas were uplifted, much of the timberland around the town had sunk as much as six feet. Fissures slashed and scarred the route … and blows, the result of frightening eruptions of sand, coal, and other organic matter, dotted the landscape.”
The area shaken by the last earthquake was vast. “The quake caused bells to ring in Charleston, S.C., and several other eastern states,” says Machon.
President James Madison felt tremors for several minutes in the White House.
This has much to do with the earth’s outer crust in the central and eastern regions of the country where seismic energy has a lower rate of absorption, according to the USGS. The estimated area was approximately 2.5 million square kilometers.
The damage caused by the earthquakes led Missouri Gov. William Clark to request federal aid, the first U. S. governor to do so, and prompted Congress to pass the first disaster relief act.
PreParing for a repeat
Machon says the effects are visible today.
“You can see sand blows around the Sikeston [Mo.] airport, and Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee used to be a part of the river, but it was cut off and created a whole new landmark,” he says.
The existing evidence of the quake 200 years ago remind Guardsmen why they must be prepared for a possible repeat.
And the Geological Survey says there is broad agreement in the scientific community that a major earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone is likely someday, and that it would almost certainly be more disastrous than 200 years ago.
Not many people were killed in 1812, according to the USGS, only because there weren’t many people living in what at the time was the nation’s western frontier. Construction also was a factor: log cabins withstand shaking very well.
Today, the infrastructure is dramatically different and approximately 12 million people now live within the region where damage was reported in 1812.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Timothy Forney, project officer for Missouri’s Vigilant Guard exercise, doesn’t wonder if the New Madrid earthquake could happen again. He wonders when it might happen and if the Missouri Guard can be ready.
“We know that is a threat to our community,” he says. “It was a very significant event in 1812. It would be even more devastating with the increased population and infrastructure today.”
The Missouri Guard has stepped up its response preparation in recent years, Forney says. This includes more specialized training at the unit level and command-post exercises for the past several years.
Although it is impossible to predict the timing and intensity of the next earthquake, the Missouri Guard takes everything it can predict into consideration, he says.
Much like 200 years ago, a hard-hitting earthquake would flatten most everything standing in southeast Missouri and across the border in Arkansas and Tennessee.
Not far away in populous St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., buildings, bridges and other structures would fall. Highways and gas lines in between would crumble and rupture. Further away, the damage would be less but still significant in many areas.
A 2010 study by the University of Illinois quantified the possible devastation. A replay of the 1812 quake would damage 715,000 buildings, render 7 million people homeless and cause more than $300 billion in total economic harm over an eight-state region.
To better prepare for such an event, Guardsmen in Missouri and several other states participate in Vigilant Guard, sponsored by U.S. Northern Command in coordination with the National Guard Bureau.
The annual exercise provides state Guard headquarters and supporting units with an opportunity to improve cooperation and operational relationships with their civilian, federal and military partners in preparation for domestic emergencies and catastrophic events.
“Vigilant Guard gives us a very unique opportunity to work with military and civilian emergency responders,” says Forney.
If there was another earthquake, the Guard’s first consideration would be saving lives through rescue efforts.
“We could be asked to help civilian responders with mass care to those affected,” Forney says. “We’d also be able to help government agencies re-establish essential services.”
In 2011, the Missouri Guard participated with six states and the federal government in the largest Vigilant Guard exercise yet to feature a response to a natural disaster.
The scenario-based exercise tested the ability of various first responders to handle a worst-case situation. In the simulation, Guardsmen supported local authorities by conducting search-and-rescue missions, clearing routes, transporting provisions, and providing security.
This year’s exercise will be even more detailed and indepth, Forney says.
Meanwhile, the New Madrid seismic zone continues to shake from time to time. A magnitude 4.0 earthquake hit Feb. 21 near Sikeston, Mo. No damage was reported, but the tremor was felt as far away as Georgia and Illinois.
It serves as evidence that much of the nation’s midsection remains on potentially shaky ground.
Michelle Queiser works in the Missouri National Guard public affairs office. She can be contacted via email@example.com.
Read the full article at http://www.nationalguardmagazine.com/article/The+Day+The+Plains+Shook/986597/102073/article.html.