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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The New Madrid Fault

New Madrid, Mo., is on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about a hundred miles upstream from Memphis, across the river from the Kentucky and Tennessee state lines, just above the Missouri boot heel.

According to the U.S. Census in 2000, New Madrid had a population of 3,334. By 2004, the population had decreased to 3,188. Perhaps the 146 people who headed for greener pastures didn't want to tempt fate.

On Dec. 16, 1811, the 400 people who lived in New Madrid were awakened by a powerful earthquake. It was the largest seismic event east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States, over 8.0 in magnitude.

The tremor lasted from three to five minutes. The ground visibly rolled and most buildings were destroyed. Large areas of land sank, new lakes were formed and over 150,000 acres of forest were decimated. It also caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for several hours and changed the course of the river.

The shake was felt as far north as Quebec City, Canada, and it rang church bells in Boston, Mass., over 1,000 miles away. The towns of Point Pleasant and Little Prairie, both in Missouri, located on points of land jutting out into the Mississippi River, were swept away without a trace.

During the next few weeks, there were 2,000 aftershocks, including three more quakes in the 8.0 range.

This event became known as the Great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-1812 because its epicenter was in a sparsely populated area near New Madrid. The New Madrid Fault system extends 120 miles south-southwest from the area of Cairo, Ill., through New Madrid, down to Blytheville, Ark., all the way down to Marked Tree, Ark.

The New Madrid Fault averages some 200 measured events per year (1.0 or greater). About once every 18 months, there is a shock of 4.0 or more, causing minimal local damage. On Thanksgiving of 1996, there was a 4.3 quake which was felt by people in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi.

An earthquake of 6.0 or greater could cause serious damage to structures, particularly older masonry buildings, from St. Louis to Memphis. This occurs about every 80 years. The last event was in 1895.

An earthquake of 7.5 or greater would be felt throughout the United States and would cause damage in 20 or more states. This happens once every 200-300 years or every 500-600 years, depending on which seismological study one chooses to believe. The last such event occurred in 1812.

Earthquake prediction is not an exact science. Most experts believe there is about a 90-percent chance of a quake of 6.0 or greater by the year 2040. Some experts believe there is a 3-percent chance of a major earthquake (7.5 or greater) along the New Madrid Fault by 2040, while other experts believe there is a 25-percent chance by 2040.

The Earth's surface is made up of tectonic plates, much like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. These plates are in constant motion, traveling a few inches per year. As these plates build up stress over time, energy is occasionally released in the form of an earthquake.

It's not a question of "if" there will be another massive earthquake along the New Madrid Fault, but "when." And when it occurs there will be catastrophic destruction, particularly in southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas, western Kentucky, western Tennessee and southern Illinois.

We live on a very precarious planet. Besides dealing with the injustice inflicted upon others by evil people, we must also contend with natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, fires, floods, mudslides, droughts, meteors, extreme temperatures, pandemics, crop failures and so on.

Beyond the folly of politics, human destiny is primarily a series of unforeseen events guided by invisible forces. Whatever happens tomorrow is meant to happen and there's nothing you can do about it.

If you live anywhere near the New Madrid Fault, don't despair; just be prepared and live life to the fullest.

The future is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get.

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Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels, which are available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at bret@centurytel.net.