After the 'Big One'

Sunday, February 26, 2006

If the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 were to happen today -- the ones that famously forced the Mississippi River to run backward -- engineers and elected officials say the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge would still be standing afterward.

But some quietly worry that while the bridge may still be in one piece after a "big one," the roads leading up to it may not be -- cutting people off from an evacuation route, emergency responders or potentially life-saving supplies.

County emergency management director David Hitt said officials with the Missouri Department of Transportation have told him in the past that's one of their bigger concerns.

"It's not that the bridge itself is going to come down," Hitt said. "But that the ramps leading up to it would come down. So the bridge would still be there, but that there would be no way to get to it."

And the Emerson Bridge would be vital after a large-scale earthquake, Hitt said, especially considering it is the only Mississippi River bridge between St. Louis and Memphis built to withstand a magnitude-8.5 earthquake.

"It could be crucial," Hitt said. "Any bridge that ties you to the outside world is important. Any bridge that crosses the Mississippi River is going to put us that much closer to the outside world -- the outside world being a means to get to a place that wasn't affected."

MoDOT operations engineer Mike Helpingstine agreed that the roads leading up to the bridge would likely be damaged in some way by an earthquake, depending upon the magnitude and an earthquake's epicenter.

But there's no way, he said, to make roads impervious to earthquakes.

"It's just pavement on top of earth," he said. "There's no seismic design for that."

Still, Helpingstine said, in the event of an earthquake, the roads leading up to the bridge could be back in service in a relatively short period of time. How long, he said, would depend on how much concrete was reduced to rubble.

"It depends on how much material we'd have to haul, how long the damaged section was, things like that," he said. "But it could be back in service in a matter of days, no doubt."

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson attended a congressional hearing in St. Louis on Friday as lawmakers are working address what federal, state and local officials can do to prepare for an earthquake that could hit Southeast Missouri, which is situated along the New Madrid Fault.

Emerson said the topic of getting to bridges was a topic of the discussions.

"We talked about the possibility of not being able to get to the bridges," Emerson said. "We talked about how important these bridges would be."

It was also Emerson's understanding, she said, that roadways leading up to bridges could be repaired quickly.

"That bridge would be very, very critical," she said. "Our bridge will stand."

But roads leading up to the bridge is only one piece of the puzzle. Emerson and Sen. Jim Talent have called for a major preparedness exercise that would include federal, state and local entities. Emerson said she hopes such an exercise would take place in 2007.

She said there are other serious shortcomings when it comes to earthquake preparedness. Scientists for years have cautioned that a massive earthquake could hit the area around the New Madrid seismic zone, which extends from Southern Illinois through parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.

There are communications problems, such as the possibility of telephone lines or cell phone towers being damaged or destroyed. Meanwhile, medical equipment and many emergency response vehicles are stored in buildings that wouldn't stand up to a major earthquake.

It's clear that Missouri and other states aren't ready, she said. Some scientists say there's a 10 percent chance for a magnitude-8.0 earthquake taking place in the next 50 years and a 25 percent chance of a magnitude-6 or magnitude-7 earthquake.

"It may not sound like it, but a 10 percent chance is very high," she said. "We have so much work to do."

People like Hitt and other emergency responders are always working to stay prepared, he said.

"But there's really no way to know how prepared you are," Hitt said, "until you have one."

335-6611, extension 137

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