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New Madrid earthquake anniversary starts year of preparedness

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - WASHINGTON - On the 199th anniversary of the first of the New Madrid earthquakes -- a series of three seismic events in a region that includes southeast Missouri and the southern tip of Illinois -- the federal government announced a series of earthquake awareness events Thursday that will culminate with the 200th anniversary.

"Today, the 199th anniversary of one of the largest earthquakes to strike the United States, should serve as an important reminder to all of us that disasters can strike anytime, anywhere," said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. He said "another series of earthquakes with the magnitude of the 1811 earthquakes could prove catastrophic to the region."

FEMA and other federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and state and local officials are planning to stage a series of outreach efforts, partnerships and events over the next year that aim to educate Americans on what they can do to be better prepared for earthquakes. The events include Earthquake Awareness Month in February, the Great Central U.S. Shakeout and the 2011 National Level Exercise.

What's commonly called the New Madrid earthquake was actually a series of three major events in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the first of which occurred on Dec. 16, 1811 -- a quake that caused shaking throughout the central United States and could be felt as far away as Washington. Each of the major events triggered landslides and was followed by dozens of large aftershocks; the largest of the earthquakes, which occurred Feb. 7, 1812, in New Madrid, caused large areas to be uplifted or dropped down in elevation.

U.S Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau -- whose congressional district includes the town of New Madrid in the Missouri Bootheel and who has led an informal congressional caucus of members representing the New Madrid region -- said Thursday that she was pleased that FEMA was directing more attention to "the persistent threat of a crippling natural disaster from the New Madrid Seismic Zone."

"Unlike our nation 199 years ago, today our region is vital to national commerce, contains crucial transportation and energy infrastructure, and is home to millions of Americans," Emerson said in a statement for the Beacon. "If a major earthquake strikes the New Madrid Seismic Zone, it will become no longer a matter of preparation but a matter of urgent response."

The New Madrid congressional group has been working to elevate U.S. Homeland Security preparations for a potential disaster in the New Madrid zone and at one point helped bring a U.S. Geological Survey meeting in Rolla to discuss the topic.

Another member of the group is Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, whose congressional district reaches southwards to the tip of Illinois -- which also was affected by the New Madrid quakes. He told the Beacon that "we encouraged FEMA to start an education campaign so the people who live in the New Madrid Seismic Zone -- as well as other parts of the country that are prone to earthquakes -- are aware of potential damage from earthquakes and what people should do or can do about it."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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