Mississippi Delta earthquake: America's Haiti waiting to happen?
Scientists predict a Haiti-magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid fault during the next 50 years. The fault runs under the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest parts of the US.
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Last November, the Obama administration’s Long Term Disaster Recovery Working Group held five stakeholder meetings around the country, including Memphis. They solicited input on how “to improve long-term disaster recovery with a particular focus on catastrophic disasters.”Skip to next paragraph
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The meetings were co-chaired by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
The New Madrid fault zone crosses five state lines and the Mississippi River in at least three places. It extends from northeast Arkansas through southeast Missouri and into western Tennessee, western Kentucky, and southern Illinois.
In the 1800s, few people lived in the region. Today, it is densely populated and includes Memphis and St. Louis.
“All the faults are active,” says Haydar Al-Shukri, director of Arkansas Earthquake Center. “We would see an earthquake 10 times larger than the Haitian earthquake or even those in California because of the amount of distance the seismic waves of the earthquake would travel.”
Delta rife with poverty
Even with government efforts at preparation, much remains to be done, says Ghilarducci, the emergency management consultant.
In many areas, people still live in shanties. Healthcare is sparse. Even clean water is scarce in some places. Often, public and private buildings, are decades-old and fragile. They have yet to be retrofitted or strengthened. Hundreds of towns could see severe structural damage, and large segments of the population displaced, Dr. Al-Shukri says.
“You still have a lot of places with cinderblock structures,” he adds. “That is the worst kind of structure you can build in a place with earthquakes. These concrete blocks are very stiff, and they do not have flexibility, so they can’t yield to seismic vibrations.”
The challenges are particularly daunting in rural areas. Given that federal dollars most often target metropolitan areas, people could be cut off from supplies for days. To help mitigate this threat, Memphis Light, Gas & Water was given a grant of $2.6 million to reduce the risk to its electrical grid from earthquakes.
“Disasters aren’t entirely a government issue,” Ghilarducci says. “If people live further out, they need to have something to be self-sufficient for a couple of days until help can reach them.”
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