Harvey Henson knows people might not fret much about Midwest earthquakes. But since this region has one of the nation’s most active underground faults, that lack of preparedness makes him tremble.
“It’s the nature of what we’re dealing with — we don’t get tested every 10 to 12 years like California does,” said Henson, a Southern Illinois University geophysicist. “Public interest wanes, and I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
He’s looking to shake that up. Henson and Scott Hodgson, an associate professor in the school’s radio-and-television department, have created short public-awareness announcements to begin airing this month between programs on WSIU-TV in Carbondale. The two educators hope to get the spots aired on other PBS stations around the New Madrid seismic zone, which runs from southern Illinois near Cairo south through parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Maybe a second
“If an earthquake hits and you have to think for three seconds what to do, that’s too long. You may have a second,” Hodgson said. The video spots should “provide a visual reference, stuff that would instantly just pop into your mind if needed.”
Scientists have warned for years that a powerful quake could hit any time along the New Madrid Fault. That zone was blamed for a series of some of the largest quakes in U.S. history in 1811-12. According to many accounts, those temblors shook the area around New Madrid, Mo., causing the Mississippi River to run backward for a time, church bells to toll on the East Coast, and formed Reelfoot Lake — Tennessee’s largest natural lake. Though no instruments existed then to measure that quake’s strength, estimates put it at magnitude 8.0, near the top of the earthquake range.
Two other earthquakes measuring at least an estimated magnitude 6 have occurred in the New Madrid zone — one in 1843, another in 1895. Moderately damaging quakes have hit the zone every few decades since 1900.
Scientists give a 7 to 10 percent probability on the likelihood of a New Madrid quake the size of the 1811-12 temblors over the next 50 years, said Gary Patterson of the University of Memphis’ Center for Earthquake Research. There’s a 25 to 40 percent probability for a smaller-but-still-damaging quake of 6.0 magnitude over that period.
Still, experts have warned that the quake that produced last December’s deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, should remind Midwesterners to be proactive in readying for natural disasters.
“It’s definitely prudent to prepare,” Patterson said.
If the New Madrid fault ruptures, the loss of key Midwest roads, railways, power grids and pipelines over the Mississippi would likely choke off vital supplies to distant cities for months. It could also threaten densely populated cities.
Henson and Hodgson hope to stoke awareness with “Suddenly … On an Average Day,” an updated version of the PBS-aired video Hodgson made in 1989 — just before that year’s 6.9-magnitude California quake killed 63 people and caused about $6 billion in damage to the Bay Area.
The new video warns that “Mother Nature can strike at any moment.” The clip asks, “When it happens, will you be prepared?”
The spot offers suggestions, from turning off all utilities and open flames after the quake. Other tips include bolting large furniture to walls before a quake hits and setting aside a “kit” that has a flashlight, battery-powered radio, canned food and bottled water.
Hodgson hopes the campaign that cost $160,000 gets aired on the more than two dozen PBS stations. He also wants to use grants to make an hour-long video for online, at schools, malls and other agencies.