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                   Saturday, March 12, 2011 - 2:34AM CST

Natural disaster preparedness: heads buried in the clouds?

By DAN ROBINSON
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The subject of earthquakes is on everyone's mind in the last few days, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to bring up an interesting subject. 200 years ago, the New Madrid fault unleashed not one, but four catastrophic earthquakes (not counting aftershocks) within two months, all four topping magnitude 7.0 (some estimates place them all over 8.0M). This event occured when the lower Midwestern region was sparsely populated, so casualties and damage were relatively low. The impacts to the natural landscape (such as Reelfoot Lake), however, demonstrate the massive power that these earthquakes had. With a few exceptions, most everyone in this field of study agrees that not only is a repeat event likely in the future, but the effects from quakes of this strength in this region have the potential to produce a natural disaster topping any to ever strike the United States in terms of damage and casualties.

A series of 7.0M or higher New Madrid quakes would likely wipe out a significant percentage of cities in the region, incuding St. Louis, Memphis, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Rolla, Springfield and Evansville, to name a few. Most structures in cities and towns in the lower Midwest were not designed to withstand earthquakes, and consequently cannot be expected to survive an event of magnitude similar to 1811-1812, much less multiple ones in a short time.

With the prospect of a future quake in this region a near certainty, it is intriguing how little we hear about such a threat, given the degree of catastrophe experienced not only by Japan yesterday (despite their tremendous amounts of preparedness), but in places like Haiti, Chile, Indonesia/Sumatra in recent years. I can easily picture the country-wide and worldwide impact and significance of a New Madrid earthquake disaster surpassing all of those I just mentioned, in everything from economic impact, news coverage and lives touched either directly or indirectly.

As I talked about with the severe thunderstorm problem, the level of awareness efforts/preparedness for any natural hazard is related only to the number of those in the field with a personal fascination and passion toward their object of study. Since storms are fairly popular subjects (and increasingly more so lately), they are the ones we see getting the attention in the forms of watches, warnings, conventions, awareness days/weeks, PSAs, research grants, movies, TV shows, documentaries, government staff positions, web sites and more. Equally or more dangerous hazards like road icing, excessive heat, flooding and earthquakes suffer from much fewer personal advocates. There seems to be little correlation to a hazard's actual danger to the public to the level of attention it gets. The level attention is purely a factor of how many people have a personal interest in the hazard. The end result is a massive dichotomy in public awareness and preparedness between hazards that are more likely to impact and ones that are less likely.

So, as the Midwest continues immersing itself in the dramatic lore of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, a cataclysmic threat like a New Madrid 'super-quake' remains a whisper in the wind. Unfortunately, the track record of human nature suggests that the unthinkable major disaster - surpassing what we're seeing in Japan today - is all but an inevitability for our region.

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