Dealing with Disaster in Mid-Missouri

1 decade 2 years 7 months ago Thursday, November 03 2005 Nov 3, 2005 Thursday, November 03, 2005 9:37:32 PM CST November 03, 2005 in News

While hurricanes won't be a problem, two other natural events could leave Missouri dealing with disaster. Recent hurricanes brought the reality of mother nature's destruction to the American doorstep and despite being so far removed from the Gulf Coast, the midwest could have its own Katrina's lurking here in Missouri.

The 2004 hurricane season was one of the worst in U.S. history, but that active storm season left few prepared for Hurricane Katrina and the rest of what mother nature had in store for 2005.

The destruction in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi is hard to comprehend. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and many houses were swept from their foundation. In Missouri, it's not hurricanes we have to be concerned about, it's the New Madrid Fault that could be the next Katrina. 

The New Madrid Fault stretches across the Mid-Mississippi River Valley putting two major metropolitan areas in its crosshairs. With a combined 3.6 million residents in the St. Louis and Memphis areas, the threat couldn't be greater. In addition, thousands of buildings built to sub-standard codes and make the real risk even more apparent. Emergency managers say earthquakes don't kill people, the collapse of infrastructure does.

"Shaking can knock you down, but earthquakes don't really hurt people. Buildings and things that fall hurt people," said Gary Patterson of the Center for Earthquake Research.

Residents of New Madrid, a sleepy river town in southeast Missouri, are well aware of the fault that lies beneath them. Over a series of months between 1811 and 1812, the strongest quakes ever felt in the U.S. hit there. The landscape was permanently changed as a result. Reelfoot Lake was formed when a piece of land dropped more than sixteen feet. That massive drop caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards and even created temporary waterfalls along its route. It also wiped some small communities off the map.

Not only was there just one earthquake, they was sequences. In 1811 and 1812 there were probably eighteen earthquakes larger than magnitude 6 that occured over a six month period. Luckily, the area was sparsely populated. The question still remains what would happen if a similar disaster happened now. That's what researchers at the University of Memphis have spent years trying to figure out.

"If it was a very large earthquake, one of the infrequent events. It would be bad. Unfortunately we don't know just how bad. It would be unfair to say total catastrophic loss, but it would also be inappropriate to say that we shouldn't prepare and it is prudent to prepare," Patterson said.

FEMA has developed detailed scenarios highlighting what could happen if a strong quake hit southeastern Missouri. The majority of medical facilities may not be operational for at least 72 hours, almost 210,000 buildings could sustain major damage, more than 42,000 could be injured and nearly 4,000 killed. Patterson warns it's not the big one residents should focus on.

"It's maybe not that beneficial to scare people for the catastrophic effects of a magnitude 8 earthquake when we're not even prepared for these magnitude 6's that are 4 times more likely to occur and can do just as much damage in the epicentral area," Patterson said.

While an earthquake is the state's biggest concern, far too many Missourians have experienced the devestation of flooding first hand. Missouri is home to the nation's two longest rivers and all that water could wreak havoc and has in the past. The images of widespread flooding in both 1993 and 1995 are still fresh. However,  floods like those aren't nearly as deadly as flash flooding, which are far less particular about where they strike.

In fact, flash floods kill more people and cause more damage than any other natural hazard in Missouri. The state emergency management agency also includes tornadoes, winter weather, major dam failures, and wildfires in its hazards mitigation plan. Still, despite all of these potential threats mother nature can throw out, officials warn not to cross the line between being prepared and being paranoid.

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