The 7.9 Survivor Website
The following material is extracted from the
paper "A 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake in the Central USA: A Truly
Catastrophic Disaster" written by Sam Penny and submitted
for inclusion in the Proceeding of the World Future Society's
2004 Conference, Washington DC, July 31, 2004.
Many people do not realize that our country faces a likely disaster an order of magnitude larger even than a hydrogen bomb, one that can kill and injure hundreds of thousands and destroy property over thousands of square miles. This can happen when - not if - a series of giant earthquakes once again fracture the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the network of faults running through the central United States beneath the Mississippi River and lower Ohio River flood plains.
Few realize that the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) in the central United States is an active fault, recording over 200 temblors per year. The NMSZ runs from east central Arkansas northeast into Tennessee and the Missouri boot-heel and on into Kentucky and Illinois.
Between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812, a series of three separate great earthquakes with magnitudes estimated from 8.2 to 8.6 all happened on the NMSZ. They tore apart the land, changed the course of the Mississippi River, rang church bells a thousand miles away in Boston, and killed people in Charleston, South Carolina. Aftershocks estimated to be as powerful as magnitude 8.0 wracked the region for the next five years. The USGS tells us that series of earthquakes released the largest amount of seismic energy in recorded history within the continental United States.
In 1987 Otto Nuttli of St. Louis University estimated that, based upon anecdotal records of the shaking intensity, the magnitudes of earthquakes on the New Madrid in 1811 and 1812 were from 8.2 to 8.6. In 1991 Nuttli calculated that the estimated amount of energy stored in the New Madrid fault could produce a magnitude 7.6 earthquake.
In 1985 Johnston and Nava published in the Journal of Geophysical Research their estimates of time-dependent probabilities for destructive earthquakes in the central United States. Using their methods, the probability for a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years is 25 percent. In 1990 Nishenko and Bollinger published in Science their estimate for time-independent probabilities that the chances of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years is 20 percent.
In 1990 Hamilton and Johnston estimated in "USGS Circular 1066" the Mean Repeat Intervals for various magnitude earthquakes in the central United States: For a 7.6 magnitude event that number is 250 years, plus or minus fifty years.
In 2001 the USGS in Memphis estimated that the probability of a 7.5 to 8.0 magnitude seismic event on the NMSZ in the next fifty years is between 7 and 10 percent. They noted that the probability for a smaller but more frequent event with a magnitude of 6.0 magnitude or greater is 25 to 40 percent.
Studies have continued, some suggesting that the danger has been overstated. More recently various other values have been proposed based upon new seismic studies and recent GPS measurements. Seth Stein, et. al., at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have proposed that the average time between giant earthquakes on the NMSZ should be from 400 to 1,000 years. This means that the chance for a great earthquake on the NMSZ in the next fifty years might be as low as 1 percent, not 10 percent as the USGS had suggested.
Stein is quoted in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists's Explorer Magazine as saying, "Our study certainly indicates there is substantial evidence to support reducing the [estimate of] seismic hazard in this area. This change would have a major impact on construction costs, since higher expected hazards require more expensive earthquake-resistant construction. Lower expected hazards encourage construction to meet realistic and less expensive seismic safety standards."
It is now being argued by some that since the risk of a NMSZ earthquake is "so much lower than originally thought," the cost/benefit ratio for applying Southern California building structure standards to places like Memphis as ordered by FEMA is simply too high to warrant their application.
This is the wrong conclusion to draw at this time. There is too much uncertainty in the probability estimates. I suggest that this conclusion compares to arguing that playing Russian Roulette with a revolver having twelve chambers is somehow better than playing with one with only four chambers. It does not correctly consider the risks.
In 1991 FEMA contracted with Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau to estimate the shaking intensity that would result from seismic events of various magnitudes on the NMSZ. David Stewart and his group produced a report entitled "Damages & Losses from Future New Madrid Earthquakes." The report includes a series of maps showing the level of shaking intensity across the entire eastern half of the United States for magnitudes of 6.0, 7.0 and 8.0 on a county-by-county basis. This report also provides an estimate of the percentage of damage to buildings and bridges and the expected casualty figures for various intensities of shaking as a function of intensity and county population.
When the parameters from this report are applied to the census data for the eastern United States for a magnitude 7.9 temblor on the southern half of the NMSZ, the extent of the potential human disaster comes into focus:
Consider the nature of physical damage caused by such an earthquake. For the most part, earthquakes do little to change the earth's landscape. The hills and plains have felt earthquakes since their beginnings and are largely in a state of relaxation toward the shaking.
On the other hand, most man-made structures have never been tested by the shaking of the earth. Giant earthquakes do their greatest damage to such structures, things built to defy gravity and control the environment. The effects of a magnitude 7.9 temblor on the NMSZ will include the following:
Those living within two hundred miles of the seventy-mile long fracture will suffer the most. For areas like Memphis the following will be typical:
The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries present special concerns in the event of a giant earthquake:
This litany of disaster staggers the senses. There is only comfort in the fact that the chances for a great earthquake on the NMSZ are as small as they are. But the chance for a smaller earthquake in the magnitude 6.0 range is much higher, and though the destruction may be an order of magnitude less, it will still be sufficient to injure the United States and severely cripple the region around the NMSZ.
The economy of the United States is highly dependent upon the industrial and shipping capacity that resides along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers:
Studying the damage profile from a giant earthquake yields some staggering conclusions:
The destruction of the transportation corridors along the Mississippi River and the growing use of Just-In-Time inventory control will have a domino effect throughout the rest of the country. Businesses dependent upon goods and services from the stricken area will cease their operations until alternate suppliers are found. Though the country may only lose five percent of its manufacturing capacity and four percent of the trucking and warehousing industries, the manufacturing infrastructure for the entire country will be totally disrupted.
With the loss of all river barge traffic and destruction of all rail and highway crossings of the rivers from St. Louis and Cincinnati to Vicksburg, the eastern part of the United States will suffer energy and food shortages for months, if not years, following the earthquake.
The United States will suffer an instantaneous four percent drop in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from a NMSZ earthquake followed by a knee-jerk over-reaction to the effects of the earthquake forcing another four to six percent drop in the GDP. Equity markets in the United States will collapse. Insurance companies will simply disappear, unable to fulfill their obligations.
The entire planet could be plunged into a depression of a magnitude exceeding what was seen the 1930s. Within a few years the Far East and Europe will start their recovery, but the United States will find itself left in the backwaters, a shell of its former self.
Recovery will not be quick. If the experiences of the 1927 Mississippi flood are any indication, over a quarter of the population will leave the stricken areas to find water, food, medical services, and work, never to return. It will take as much as thirty-five years for the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys to recover, and then never reach the level of affluence they currently enjoy.
By comparison, the 9-11 terrorist attack, a disaster two orders of magnitude less damaging than a great earthquake on the NMSZ, produced a noticeable drop in the GDP indicating how fragile our economic infrastructure really is. The knee-jerk over-reaction to the disaster paralyzed our economy for weeks and produced lasting effects we are still trying to overcome.
The risk our country faces from a giant earthquake on the NMSZ is its demise as a world power and the loss of the high standard of living enjoyed by all our citizens.
Many believe that the next giant earthquake on the NMSZ is inevitable, possibly within the lifetime of even our senior citizens. However, the level of personal suffering and property damage and the impact on society and the United States from such an event is still under the control of the citizens of the region.
An immediate first step is to ensure that construction standards that minimize casualties and damage in the event of an earthquake on the NMSZ are adopted and used. This process is well underway, but there are those who are fighting the change on the basis that the cost is too high relative to the perceived benefits.
The work that the Universities in the area are doing, with the Center for Earthquake Research (CERI) and the Central United States Earthquake Center (CUSEC), to understand the NMSZ and make the public aware is vital. They require even more support.
State and Federal Emergency Management Agencies should recognize and prepare for larger, statewide disasters. Their focus is on more frequent localized events such as tornadoes and floods. There is a need to develop more comprehensive contingency plans.
Agencies such as the Mississippi River Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers must proactively eliminate points of catastrophic failure. The levee system along the rivers is a disaster waiting to happen whether by a gigantic flood or by an earthquake.
Decision-makers must opt for redundancy and failsafe systems, even when more expensive. Too many designs and building locations ignore the principal of avoiding risk. Rather they create points of potential failure.
There is a reluctance to educate people on the dangers they face and to train them on how to avoid injury. All too often the unspoken attitude is "if we don't think about it, it will go away. If we don't talk about an earthquake, it will not happen."
The entire country must better understand what is at risk. The actuarial risk calculated by insurance companies and some governmental agencies for the NMSZ does not adequately describe the potential damage to the United States. Any event that has a 10 percent chance of wiping out 10 percent of our country's GDP in the next 50 years is a far greater danger to our society than actuarial calculations show. Personal action is required to make progress on mitigating the risk of this truly catastrophic disaster:
Details for each of these action items are discussed in detail starting the in home page of this website.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the chance for a 7.5- to 8.0-magnitude event in the next 50 years as 7 to 10 percent. The chance of blowing your brains out playing Russian roulette with a twelve-shot revolver is 8 percent. Even if you could cut those chances in half, would you still play Russian roulette?
The intention of this website is to work towards the mitigation of such a disaster by the sharing of information, ideas, and political force to point our country and citizens in the direcion to survive.