Analysis - Earthquakes reinforce need for planning
11:00 pm
Fri April 18, 2008

Analysis - Earthquakes reinforce need for planning

As windows rattled, beds shook and bricks tumbled, Midwesterners
inevitably reacted with shock, fear and even wonder at Friday’s series
of earthquakes centered in southeastern Illinois and felt across a
dozen states.

about the author

William Allen teaches science journalism at the University of Missouri
at Columbia and leads the Agricultural Journalism Program. He reported
on science, medicine and the environment for the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch from 1989-2002.

Just as inevitably, the seismic activity in the Wabash Fault Zone will
bring a wave of public discussion about whether Missouri and southern
Illinois are in the bull’s eye of an impending “Big One” from the New
Madrid Fault -- and whether the region’s buildings and people are
adequately prepared.

That discussion will raise important questions, although it’s unlikely
to rise to the level of intensity sustained in 1989 and 1990. During
those two years, concern about the region’s earthquake threat leapt to
a degree rare outside of California, driven by a combination of
scientific activism, news media attention, a killer quake in the San
Francisco area and a fantastical forecast for a devastating eruption in
the Midwest.

New Madrid's history

The New Madrid Fault got its name from the frontier outpost town near
the epicenters of a series of major earthquakes in December 1811 and
early 1812. The quakes, estimated at better than 7.0 on the Richter
scale, damaged buildings as far away as Washington, D.C., and
Charleston, S.C. Other significant quakes followed in 1843 and 1895.

more information

On the New Madrid Fault

On the recent earthquakes

That record, plus the constant chatter of smaller temblors, are behind
today’s concern among scientists, engineers, public officials and
others responsible for constructing safe buildings, bridges, pipelines
and other elements of infrastructure.

These are their questions:

  • When will another large quake strike in the New Madrid Fault?
  • Where
    will it strike within the fault zone, which covers southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, northeast Arkansas, western Tennessee and western
  • And how far beyond the zone will its ground motion –
    transmitted by the region’s characteristic bedrock -- rip and tear?

In the 1970s, led by St. Louis University seismologist Otto Nuttli,
scientists warned about the quake potential in the New Madrid Fault.
Engineers began to publicize the particular vulnerability of thousands
of the region’s old brick buildings, especially in St. Louis. These
so-called unreinforced masonry buildings were great for withstanding
fire. But in the face of an earthquake they were – especially older
ones with brittle mortar – ready to pancake.

In the late 1980s, other scientists and engineers picked up where
Nuttli and his colleagues left off. Their warnings were perhaps best
summarized in a report commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management
Agency. Issued in 1990, the report said a daytime New Madrid earthquake
of 7.6 on the Richter scale at the northern end of the New Madrid
Fault, about 100 miles from St. Louis, would kill some 260 people in
St. Louis and St. Louis County, many of them schoolchildren.

The quake would injure more than 1,000 and cause more than $2 billion
in damage to buildings. Thousands would be left homeless. Casualties
would overwhelm hospitals. Damage to roadways and bridges would slow
rescue efforts.

News media stories about such topics, followed by heavy national
coverage of the October 1989 World Series earthquake in the San
Francisco Bay area, heightened local concern.

Into this mix stepped Iben Browning of New Mexico.

Prophet of doom

Behind a cloud of equations and physics-speak not unlike that of a
card-carrying seismologist, Browning, actually trained as a
climatologist, issued a startling forecast. He called for a 50-50
chance of an earthquake in the New Madrid Fault measuring between 6.5
and 7.5 on the Richter scale. And he called for it during the first few
days of December.

The Browning prediction seeped into the region first through national
media and then the local press. The specificity of the predicted time
frame captivated many. By November, coverage steadily escalated, as did
public anxiety.

Most earthquake scientists were livid that the Browning prediction was
given credence. But one key expert, David Stewart of Southeast Missouri
State University and Missouri’s official earthquake adviser, backed

No quake occurred. Browning faded from view. Stewart left the university and his state advisory duties.

Preparedness progress

At the end of the Browning affair, only emergency preparedness
officials seemed to see a silver lining. They pointed out that public
awareness of the region’s real earthquake threat had grown. More
families were taking household safety measures.

Businesses and public institutions were making plans to strengthen
their facilities. Engineers in Missouri and Illinois bolstered
hospitals and vulnerable bridges. The Missouri Botanical Garden even
made giant rubberized seismic shock absorbers part of the foundation of
a new building.

And Missouri created its own Seismic Safety Commission to continue the discussion of balancing the needs and costs of preparing.

Public surveys have shown that more Midwesterners than ever agree that
the threat is real and that there’s still a need to inch toward
awareness and preparedness.

Friday’s event was just the latest nudge in that direction.