A huge earthquake could strike metropolitan areas in the central U.S. — and if it does, it will be bad, experts say, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
The Kentucky-based newspaper calls the looming, potential quake “The Big One,” and the New Madrid Seismic Zone could be to blame. That zone reaches from Marked Tree, Arkansas, to Cairo, Illinois, and includes St. Louis and Memphis, according to the Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
“The big thing we prepare for is with New Madrid,” said John Bobel with the division of emergency management in Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, according to the Courier Journal. “Depending on the significance of an earthquake, Memphis, Tennessee, would be gone, St. Louis would be wrecked.”
This warning came after a 4.4 magnitude earthquake shook in Tennessee on Wednesday. It was one of the “strongest (quakes) on record” in eastern Tennessee, The Weather Channel reported, and it gave several surrounding areas a light shake — “most of the Atlanta metro area, and a number of states from southern Alabama to South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky.”
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Bobel told the Courier Journal that the Tennessee earthquake should be a “reality check” for the surrounding areas.
In St. Louis, KTVI reported that the Wednesday quake — and its aftershocks — had people in the metro area wondering whether a “big one” will hit that area, too.
“Experts say it’s not a matter of whether one will hit, it’s a matter of when,” according to KTVI.
Scientists estimate that there is a 25 percent to 40 percent chance a magnitude 6.0 earthquake or larger will strike in the New Madrid Seismic Zone within “any 50 year period,” according to Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
“Earthquakes of moderate magnitude occur much more frequently than powerful earthquakes of magnitude 7 to 8, and the probability of a moderate earthquake occurring in the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the near future is high,” the association reports. New Madrid is the “most active seismic area” in the country, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
The United States Geological Survey echos those predictions.
“The St. Louis metropolitan area, with a population of about 2.8 million, faces earthquake hazard from distant large earthquakes in the New Madrid and Wabash Valley seismic zones,” the USGS said in a “St. Louis Area Earthquake Hazards Mapping Project.”
St. Louis buildings are vulnerable to quakes because of “historic older unreinforced brick and stone,” the USGS says.
Should an earthquake occur in this central zone, structures in the Missouri and the Mississippi River floodplains “will likely experience stronger ground shaking and a greater likelihood of liquefaction,” according to the USGS. Liquefaction is when “water-saturated sediment temporarily loses strength and acts as a fluid, like when you wiggle your toes in the wet sand near the water at the beach.”
Bobel told the Courier Journal that if an earthquake hit Kentucky, it would be bad.
“Anything west of I-65, infrastructure would be severely damaged,” he said, according to the newspaper. “The ground could even liquify and turn to mud.”
Seismologists estimate that if a “major earthquake” were to hit in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, about 11 million people and at least six states would be affected, according to KTVI.
“Earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S., although less frequent than in the western U.S., are typically felt over a much broader region,” the USGS said after this week’s Tennessee earthquakes. Quakes east of the Colorado Rockies can be “felt over an area as much as ten times larger” than similar quakes in the west.
Three of America’s biggest earthquakes — all in the early 1800s — occurred near New Madrid, Missouri, according to the city’s website. They caused church bells to ring in Boston, and the Mississippi River ran backward for hours. President James Madison even felt the quakes while in the White House.