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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

haiti earthquake

Brooks Blanton

Atlanta, GA

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“Haiti-Like” Disaster in the Heartland?

January 27, 2010 - 12:16 PM | by: Brooks Blanton

Bridges collapse, roadways crack and buildings crumble.  The ground violently shakes as homes, offices, schools – even hospitals and police stations  — are reduced to a pile of cinder blocks, bricks and splintered wood.  Thousands are dead, tens of thousands are injured.  Daily life comes to a screeching halt as desperate relatives and rescue crews dig through concrete and steel trying to save those who survived, but are buried alive.

It’s a scene many of us watched unfold in Haiti just two weeks ago and in China in 2008.  But this feared earthquake is expected to hit closer to home, inside our own borders.  Scientists are predicting a major shaker, 7.0 or greater on the Richter scale, to strike in the United States within the next 50 years.  Hardest hit — not Los Angeles or San Francisco as you would expect — but St. Louis, Little Rock and Memphis.  Heartland cities along or near the Mississippi River.

The New Madrid Fault

Geologists and emergency management officials have been watching the New Madrid Fault, a crack in the earth’s crust that zig-zags along the Mississippi River from Southern Illinois to Northern Mississippi.  It’s been relatively quiet until recently.  But a series of minor earthquakes, measuring up to 3.4, have been felt recently in small towns across seven states.  Just last week, residents of tiny Lynn, Arkansas were jolted out of bed in the middle of the night as a 3.3 quake shook windows, shattered knick-knacks and rattled nerves.  Monster earthquakes, believed to register hgher than 7.0, hit this area back in 1811 and 1812.  The force of those twin quakes rattled towns up to a thousand miles away.  Furniture moved in Washington, DC, chimneys collapsed in Maine and church bells rang in Boston.

Poverty and Disaster

Particularly concerning here is the number of people that live at or below the poverty line.  Some communities along the Mississippi River have 26% of their residents living in sub-standard housing and unable to fend for themselves should disaster strike.  Emergency Management Officials have estimated that a 7.0 earthquake would destroy more than 227,000 buildings, kill almost 3400 people and seriously injure more than 63,000 others in seven states from Indiana to Mississippi.  Images of poorly built buildings and homes leveled in Haiti along with a population not financially equipped with the basics to survive this kind of tragedy, have raised concerns of a similar tragedy and rescue effort happening here.

Preparing for the Worst

The second week of February is Earthquake Awareness Week in the New Madrid Strike Zone.  Since 2006, authorities have been working on the New Madrid Seizmic Zone Catastrophic Planning Project — a multi-state, multi-agency effort to improve how emergency crews will rebuild and recover after a major earthquake, much of it based on the response following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.   State emergency management officials from seven states are hoping that the nearly 41 million residents who live in the New Madrid strike zone are taking the recent outbreak smaller quakes as a warning for the big one they expect to happen sooner than later.

New Madrid Earthquake Resources

For more information on the New Madrid Fault and the Center for Earthquake Information and Research.  You can also learn more about Earthquake Preparedness in the New Madrid Strike Zone through the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency or the Central US Earthquake Consortium.

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