The last earthquake to hit the New Madrid faultline caused the Mississippi River to run backward. A recent FEMA-funded study says the next one may put the entire western half of Tennessee out of operation.
Published by Illinois' Mid-America Earthquake Center, the study outlines the probable effects of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid faultline. Of the 10 states evaluated in the study, Tennessee was cited as the least prepared to handle such a catastrophe.
The study estimates that, in addition to 60,000 deaths or injuries in the state of Tennessee, the earthquake would significantly damage more than 250,000 buildings and displace 260,000 people from their homes. The cost of such a quake would be more than $56 billion in damaged buildings and infrastructure.
"It's not your garden-variety disaster," says Gary Patterson, director of education and outreach for the University of Memphis' Center for Earthquake Research and Information. "An earthquake in the central United States would be much more devastating than one of the same magnitude in California."
In Shelby County, such an earthquake would immediately reduce the functionality of hospitals by 95 percent, shut down most police and fire stations, and leave 85 percent of households without power or clean water.
"There are no plusses and minuses by those numbers, and there really should be," Patterson says, pointing out that the study produces only approximate outcomes for an earthquake on the more severe end of the possible spectrum. But he also underlines the fact that taking precautions can help.
Based on the study's predictions, the number of buildings that don't meet current seismic codes poses the largest problem.
"It's nobody's fault that we only built for gravity before the 1980s," Patterson says, "but those problems can be addressed if policies are made in a way that considers the hazard at hand."
Seismic patterns show the likelihood of some kind of quake in the near future, and the study exposes how severe the damage could be if provisions aren't made soon.
"It's not like we think it's going to happen tomorrow, but we really need to plan for a situation like this," Patterson warns. "Past New Madrid earthquakes were really big, they really happened, and they could happen again."