Bracing for the big one

Monday, September 19, 2005

A rolling terror hides under the earth in Southeast Missouri. Sooner or later, it will be unleashed.

The ground will tremble and shake. Along the Mississippi River, water will shoot out of the ground like geysers. Buildings will topple, river bluffs will collapse and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes will be uninhabitable.

For people along and near the New Madrid Fault, it is only a matter of time before a big earthquake strikes, experts say.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be a lesson, area emergency officials warn. For several days following a big quake, many people would have to fend for themselves. Evacuation to safe places isn't an option before earthquakes, because they are unpredictable. And leaving the zone of destruction afterward could be difficult, if not impossible.

"They need to be prepared to function without a major government cavalry charge for 72 hours," said David Hitt, director of emergency operations for Cape Girardeau County.

Preparations for everyone include water, food, and plans for shelter if left homeless. Preparations should also include medications, flashlights and a first aid kit, he said.

"You always hope you never need them," Hitt said of the emergency supplies. "But the day you don't have them is the day you need them."

Few people lived in this region when the massive earthquakes struck in December 1811 and February 1812 near New Madrid. About 400 people lived in New Madrid at the time.

But chimneys toppled in St. Louis, poorly built homes collapsed in Louisville, Ky., and church bells rang in Boston and Philadelphia.

Since 1994, Missouri has required new major buildings in areas susceptible to earthquakes to be able withstand the kind of shaking Cape Girardeau would experience in a 7.6 magnitude earthquake. That is a quake slightly less intense than earthquake historians judge the 1811 temblors.

Those requirements, which mean the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge would likely suffer little damage, don't apply to private homes or buildings built prior to the law's passage.

"Is the average citizen ready for earthquake of 1811-1812 intensity?" Hitt said. "The honest answer is no."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an earthquake similar to the 1811-1812 events has a one in 25 chance of occurring within the next 20 years. Those odds may make it seem unlikely but don't be fooled, said Buddy Schweig, coordinator of the earthquake hazard program for the USGS office in Memphis, Tenn.

"Improbable events happen all the time," Schweig said. "Katrina was an unlikely storm, but it happened. Our job is to communicate to as many people as we can what the hazard is."

In Cape Girardeau, city officials have taken several steps to make sure essential emergency services continue. Police department radios in each car are powerful enough to continue working even if communication towers topple, Sgt. Barry Hovis, spokesman for the department, said.

An earthquake-resistant fire station to be built on North Sprigg Street near Blanchard Elementary will be the city's emergency operations center, assistant fire chief Mark Hasheider said.

The city hopes to maintain water supplies by employing seismic shut off valves, which keep stored water from escaping through ruptured mains, Hasheider said. Water service would be restored as soon as officials isolated major leaks, he said.

Hasheider would take charge of emergency response for the city.

The city's emergency operations plan, Hasheider said, anticipates more than just an earthquake. It details the response to any number of problems, ranging from flash flooding to a tornado to a hazardous material spill.

Response is coordinated from the emergency operations center through incident commanders, who would direct activities within a specified area. "Incident commanders don't put fires out, they don't clean streets, they don't stop and control traffic," Hasheider said. "They get the resources where they are needed."

One important aspect of any emergency in the city would be residents trained to help others, Hasheider said. Cape Girardeau's program to train Citizen Emergency Response Teams has been used as a model for areas across the state.

Hasheider is also chairman of the state Seismic Safety Commission's committee on response and recovery. One reassuring word from Hasheider -- wood frame homes can take more shaking than many larger masonry buildings. Homeowners should, however, make sure their homes are properly secured to the foundation, he said.

On some quickly constructed homes with basements, for example, workers didn't put nuts on anchor bolts. That would allow the house to shake off its mooring in a quake, he said.

Homeowners should also make sure their water heater is secure. That prevents both a rupture in a gas line and the loss of the water contained in the heater, he said.

Like the levee breaks after Hurricane Katrina, a secondary, more damaging disaster could be caused when natural gas leaks from ruptured lines into homes and businesses. Small sparks could ignite the leaking gas.

AmerenUE officials said the utility doesn't have automatic shut-off valves. Underground lines would probably survive all but the worst earthquakes, said Mark Wetherell, supervisor of gas engineering and operations for AmerenUE in Cape Girardeau.

If the company needed to shut off all gas supplies, it could do so in an hour, he said. A more likely case is to shut off supplies to areas with ruptures in homes and businesses so that others who need the fuel can have it, he said.

Cape Girardeau is by no means the largest city that could suffer from an earthquake on the New Madrid fault. Large portions of eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee, including Memphis, would likely see damage similar to that experienced here, the USGS estimates. Damage would be lighter but significant in St. Louis.

Across the Bootheel, damage would be more catastrophic.

The first help to arrive in Southeast Missouri from outside the area would have to rely on U.S. 60, said Carl Carnahan, state bridge maintenance engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. The path of Interstate 55 through the Mississippi River floodplain and the large number of overpass bridges on the road make it questionable as a supply route, he said.

And in the Bootheel, Callahan said, portions of roads could disappear entirely as the soft, sandy soil shakes and the heavy roads sink.

MoDOT plans identify resources in locations outside areas likely to be the hardest hit and direct them to begin moving quickly to evaluate and reopen roads, Callahan said.

Hurricane Katrina exposed potential flaws in such plans, Callahan said.

"It was such a large affected area that could be very similar to a major earthquake in New Madrid," Callahan said. "Our one and only goal would be to get those roads open. Recovery never really starts until you have road access."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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