Small quakes rattle SE states


"If we have (a magnitude 6.0 earthquake) today, we're talking $4 to $10 billion in damage -- not to mention the number of lives we could lose."

—Jim Beavers

While much of the Gulf Coast was

focused on preparing for the arrival of Tropical Storm Barry, early

Saturday morning, the earth moved under the feet of residents of this

Arkansas town.

While most people associate earthquakes in the U.S. with western

states like California and Washington, one of the largest earthquakes

in U.S. history was centered in the middle of the country.

Saturday's tremor, was so small -- a magnitude of 3.2 -- that most

residents probably slept right through it. But one of the few larger

earthquakes to center in southwestern Arkansas occurred in June 1939.

It cracked plaster in buildings at Arkadelphia, and was felt

throughout the southern portion of Arkansas.

Just a week earlier an similarly-sized earthquake hit eastern

Tennessee. According to the National Earthquake Information Service

it was felt in Knoxville, Morristown, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville,


The most recent large eastern U.S. earthquakes occurred about a

century ago when quakes of magnitude 5.0 and higher struck major

cities like Charleston, S.C., and St. Louis, MO., causing hundreds of

deaths and millions of dollars in damage.

"It's been one hundred years since some of these major quakes

happened, so people really don't think about it," said Jim Beavers,

Deputy Director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAEC). The

MAEC is a National Science Foundation earthquake research center

based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Formed in

1997, researchers work with seven other universities in the U.S.,

including such schools as MIT and Georgia Tech, on earthquake

research and awareness.

He said the main eastern U.S. fault on which most earthquake

researchers focus is the New-Madrid Seismic Zone, or the NMSZ. "The

main states concerned in this seismic zone are Kentucky, Missouri,

Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee," said


But, he said, these aren't the only eastern areas in the U.S. that

have felt tremors. "In 1775 there was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake off

the coast of Boston, and some of the central U.S. earthquakes that

happened in the 1800s were strong enough to ring church bells in

places as far away as New York City and Boston," said Beavers. The

1812 NMSZ earthquake was felt in Quebec, Washington, and New Orleans.

So what, then, is the probability of another huge earthquake

happening sometime soon in the eastern U.S.? Beavers and the

researchers at the MAEC have been calculating and researching as many

possibilities as they can. "How often do these big ones occur?

Working on that, we're very convinced that these earthquakes occur

about every 450 years," he said. "But that could be bad news for us,

it means our risk is higher, during this century we have about a 20

percent chance of a big one."

And according to the MAEC, we're overdue for a magnitude 6.0 --

something that Beavers said could easily devastate most areas. "If

we have (a magnitude 6.0 earthquake) today, we're talking $4 to $10

billion in damage -- not to mention the number of lives we

could lose," he said.

That, he added, is why education and awareness across the eastern

U.S. is crucial.

"We have an outreach program, an education program for grades K-12,

and we do professional trainings," said Beavers. The displays that

they demonstrate include a shake table, where they simulate the

inside of the house during various magnitudes of earthquakes. "We

shake the table and the house on it rattles," he said. "We show how

weak it is and then show how to strengthen it -- it's always

well-received." Beavers said they also hand out information to

people about how they can help "earthquake-proof" their own homes.

Beavers says their outreach programs have been just about everywhere,

from state fairs to professional conferences, to morning shows like

"Good Morning America." MAEC's K-12 programs have been utilized and

integrated in many of Illinois' school systems. The MAEC also works

closely with the Central United States Earthquake Consortium

(CU.S.EC), an organization formed in 1983 through a partnership of

the federal government and the seven states most affected by an

earthquake in the NMSZ. CU.S.EC helped get the Kentucky state

legislature to mandate that earthquake education be taught in

schools. Both the MAEC and CU.S.EC also help schools and

organizations hold "Earthquake Awareness Weeks" in areas all over the

central United States.

Both organizations focus heavily on mitigation efforts. Beavers said

the MAEC focuses on "consequence-based engineering." "We're looking

at transportation systems, homes, the insurance industry, communities

-- at what the losses would be (if a major earthquake occurred),"

said Beavers. "We're seeing how we could lower those losses by

talking to decision-makers because we're in a high-consequence area

if a quake happens."

The U.S. Department of Transportation worked directly with CU.S.EC to

improve its systems in case of earthquakes -- as CU.S.EC predicts

that "the probability for an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater

is significant in the near future, with a 50 percent chance by the

year 2000 and a 90 percent chance by the year 2040." CU.S.EC's work

with state transportation departments has been successful as well.

According to CU.S.EC's website, in 1990, transportation agencies in

Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee initiated programs to strengthen

bridges that do not meet earthquake standards.

Even though the MAEC outreach efforts are going well, Beavers said

another problem area they have is getting cities in the east to adapt

to earthquake building codes. "People will enjoy our programs, but

we've received a lot of resistance from the public on housing codes,"

he said. Beavers said since the public continues to think that

earthquakes don't happen in their part of the U.S., they're less

likely to want to pay the added expenses on structures that would be

stronger in earthquakes.

The lack of awareness has some disaster relief organizations stepping

up their training of their own staffs. Beavers said they work

regularly with the American Red Cross on education programs. The

Church World Service Emergency Response Program has also been

training its own Disaster Resource Consultants to be more aware of

the risks and to work on preparedness in their own regions.

"We're very aware of it," said George Siddall, a CWS Disaster

Resource Consultant in Cincinnati, where the end of the NMSZ lies.

Siddall said he thinks some action may be on the way. "We've felt a

few tremors here in southern Ohio," said Siddall. "I think we'll be

doing something very soon."

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More links on Earthquakes

More links on Disaster Planning


Related Links:

• A partnership with the federal government and the seven states most affected by the New Madrid Seismic Zone:: Central United States Earthquake Consortium

• One of three national earthquake engineering research centers:: Mid-America Earthquake Center

• For current, real-time and general earthquake information, visit: USGS: National Earthquake Information Center


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