New Madrid Fault is Missouri’s Disaster in Waiting

“The number of lives lost and people displaced would likely number in the millions” —lawmakers.

October 11, 2005
The Kansas City Star

“We have learned the lessons of hurricane season well, and we need to apply this knowledge to all kinds of natural disasters, especially earthquakes.” — U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, southeast Missouri’s Eighth District


An earthquake of that magnitude wiped out villages in Pakistan Saturday.

The quake occurred just as officials in Missouri were reviewing whether the state is ready to respond to its own 7.6 magnitude –– or worse –– earthquake along the New Madrid Fault in eastern and southeastern Missouri. A 7.6 quake would devastate St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, Mo., and break dishes and overturn furniture in Kansas City.

Graphic: East meets West: New Madrid versus the Landers, CA earthquake of 1992

State officials acknowledge that earthquake preparedness is not what it should be.

“Frankly, since 9/11, the vast majority of our major state exercises have involved terrorism,” said Susie Stonner, spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency. “We need to get back to the natural disasters.”

Late last month, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Sen. Jim Talent, both Republicans, asked Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff to organize within the next year an emergency response drill in anticipation of a potential earthquake along the New Madrid Fault.

State officials say several issues need to be addressed:

The State Emergency Management Agency has not had an earthquake program director for months. The 17-member Seismic Safety Commission, which reviews earthquake preparedness, has six vacancies that must be filled by gubernatorial or legislative appointment. The state regularly stages overall emergency preparedness drills but has not held an earthquake exercise since 2001. Federal officials had an earthquake exercise in Kansas City in 2003.

Although the State Emergency Management Agency has a program to promote earthquake preparedness and improve disaster response, the state lacks a specific earthquake response plan. For years, Missouri, like many states, has used an “all hazards” plan that is meant to respond to a variety of disasters.

Ron Reynolds, the agency’s director, said Hurricane Katrina had emergency management officials rethinking that strategy.

The New Madrid Fault could affect an area running from Memphis, Tenn., through northeastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri and north to St. Louis, crossing the river into Illinois.

In the winter of 1811-1812, a series of earthquakes occurred along the fault, destroying New Madrid and other towns on the frontier, and damaging St. Louis. Judging from their effects, three of the quakes were magnitude 8.0 or higher.

An earthquake measuring 8.0 to 9.0 would devastate the southeast Missouri region, Emerson and Talent wrote to Chertoff.

“The number of lives lost and people displaced would likely number in the millions,” the lawmakers said.

The letter requested a training exercise involving state, local and federal responders.

Joe Engeln, assistant director for science and technology at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said from a state perspective, comparing a New Madrid quake with Katrina is appropriate.

“An earthquake is somewhat similar to what happened in New Orleans,” said Engeln, a former professor of geology at the University of Missouri who has studied the New Madrid Fault.

Mass evacuations, which emergency management officials say are difficult in most disasters, would be much trickier in the event of an earthquake. Because there would be no warning, a pre-disaster evacuation would be out of the question.

And because it would be impossible until after the quake to know the damage to roads and bridges, specific evacuation routes could not be identified until then.

A major earthquake could mean help for the average citizen could be days away.

Emergency management experts encourage Missourians to prepare, for example stocking several days’ worth of food and water.

“If you’re relying on the government to take care of your family (in a disaster), you are sadly mistaken,” Evans said. “You have to take individual responsibility for your family.”