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What if a New Madrid quake hit today?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2009 - Although last April's earthquake that originated in Mount Carmel, Ill., was minor compared to other earthquakes in the country, many St. Louisans remember being awakened around 4 a.m. to trembling houses and rattling windows.

Coming in at 5.2 on the Richter scale, it limited damage in our area to broken windows and slightly cracked house foundations. Nonetheless, it reminded all of us in the St. Louis region of other, similar earthquakes that have occurred over the past 200 years. Of note are the New Madrid quakes of late 1811 and early 1812.

Scientists estimate that those seismic events registered at around 8.0 on the Richter scale. Sidewalks were cracked in places as far as Washington, D.C., and tremors were reported in New England.

But if an event like that happened today, results would be much more catastrophic because of the higher population and the vast increase in construction since 1811. Missouri officials say all bridges surrounding the St. Louis area would collapse, making highway travel impossible over the Missouri, Mississippi and Meramec rivers.

"In the event of a New Madrid situation, St. Louis could essentially be an island," said Bruce Bailey, executive director of AmeriCorps St. Louis. Getting supplies into the area after such a situation "could be a replication of the Berlin Airlift," he added.

Bailey, along with several other representatives from charitable organizations, emergency responders and Missouri state offices, addressed earthquake preparedness at the Doubletree Hotel in Chesterfield this week at the Catastrophic Mass Care Conference. The event was hosted by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.

Speakers at the conference offered worst-case scenarios: Simple automobile transportation would be critically stunted, and use of surviving roads could be restricted to delivery of foods, water and emergency victims. In the event of a New Madrid-type event, "Interstate 55 might be used as an airstrip," said Susie Stonner of SEMA.

Stonner said the only 8.0-seismic capable bridge in the surrounding area would be the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau. So, with all the local bridges taken out after a New Madrid event, that would leave few routes, in fact only one route, that would be effective for departure from St. Louis: Manchester Avenue/Highway 100.

Stonner added that, after the Mount Carmel earthquake last year, the Missouri Department of Transportation conducted tests on bridges. All Missouri bridges in the test passed muster after the 5.2 event.

A mass exodus on Manchester Avenue to points north and west from an earthquake-damaged St. Louis could be incredibly challenging and potentially dangerous, said Mike Pickerel, emergency planner for SEMA. "Four hundred thousand people are going to evacuate on Highway 100," he said. "That's the only highway in this area that doesn't cross a river." He noted that inland states, like Missouri, Nebraska and Illinois, are not acclimated to evacuations as are the Gulf region and New England states, where hurricane evacuation routes are commonly activated during storm season. "The inland states have never attempted an evacuation of this size," Pickerel said.

Looking at an earthquake intensity map, one would see a bright red spot originating in Missouri's bootheel that turns from orange to yellow. Areas in that shaded region would experience everything from complete leveling of buildings and structures in the red area down to slight building damage and broken tree branches in the yellow zone.

Panelists added that the expanse of this damage would not just be a metro St. Louis and eastern Missouri problem, it could be a disaster that affects a swath from St. Louis to Memphis and into Indiana. Bailey stressed that even getting MREs (meals, ready-to-eat) to victims in St. Louis immediately after such a seismic event would be difficult.

"Our best source is a firm in Cincinnati for MREs," he added. "And what if the bridges are out? We're talking about FEMA stepping up and trying to support five and six states at the same time."

During the conference, the elephant in the bedroom was FEMA itself, (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) an agency that's often been publicly and politically upbraided for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005. Not only has FEMA been chastised for those events in 2005, but so were its state subsidiary agencies in Louisiana and other affected Gulf states.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spared no criticism of those agencies' slow response in 2005 and cited their poor performances as an example of what would not happen in Missouri after a New Madrid event.

"The breakdowns that occurred down there show us what happens when local, state and national leaders are slow off the block," Nixon said. He praised the attendees, some of whom were from faith-based organizations as the Salvation Army and some of the groups helped by the United Way, but emphasized hard work and planning in addition to the good will of religious groups. "Hope won't get us there, faith won't get us there," he said.

Paul D. Parmenter, director of the state emergency management agency, said that FEMA was quick to avoid a repeat of the New Orleans disaster, and reached out to state disaster agencies in the aftermath to avoid a repeat and began to emphasize state- and region-oriented events such as this one. "Essentially after that, FEMA asked (states): what is your Katrina?" he said. Parmenter, a former commander in the Missouri Highway Patrol, has been on the job at SEMA for six months.

Another unpredicted (and perhaps unpredictable) element in a New Madrid earthquake situation: costs of damage, both private and public. John Campbell, operations branch chief for SEMA, cited a Jan. 26 ice storm this year that blanketed southeastern Missouri as a comparison to a catastrophic earthquake, which would be predictably even more costly. The storm affected 21 Missouri counties plus parts of surrounding states. During a 12-day period, 11,000 people sought shelter, more than 350 members of the Missouri National Guard were deployed, and 194 electricity generators were distributed because of damage to the electrical distribution systems.

SEMA officials estimate that the ice storm costs, which include identifiable damages, state officials' and vendors' overtime pay, totalled $215 million.

A relatively unspoken topic at the event were the budgetary needs for operational costs of New Madrid earthquake preparedness. A collective shrug of shoulders ensued when some agency representatives were approached on the subject. "Funding?" asked one official in private. "What is appropriate funding for this? I don't know."

Although recent U.S. Geological Survey studies indicate that the chance of a quake comparable to New Madrid's in 1811-12 is only at a 7-10 percent probability in the next 50 years, officials here err on the side of caution. "We have no calendar to predict when these things are going to happen," said Nixon.

Mark McHugh is a freelance writer.