Would the citizens of Memphis be surprised to know they live along a major fault line? As the nation focuses on the horrors of the earthquake in Japan, many Americans may not be aware that the San Andreas fault line running along the West Coast is not the only region of the U.S. facing risk of catastrophic earthquakes.
And the United States is ill-prepared to cope with catastrophic earthquakes and disasters in general, according to government reports prepared over the past several years. Here is a look at areas of seismic concern located within the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano talked to ABC News about disaster preparedness today in Denver. See that interview HERE.
The New Madrid fault line is centered in the central part of the country and could affect more than 15 million people in eight states. (Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.) But the roughly 1 million people in the metro Memphis, Tenn., region are considered by the U.S. Geological Survey to be at greatest risk from a quake of 7.0 or 8.0. According to an August 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey the potential impact could be devastating.
The report predicts that a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault line could lead to catastrophic loss of life, including for children and first responders. This part of the country appears unprepared in terms its capacity for buildings and infrastructure to survive a big quake. The last big quake to hit the New Madrid fault was a series of four in 1811 and 1812. Those are estimated to have been between 7.0 and 8.0 in magnitude and made the Mississippi flow backwards.
"Memphis has an aging infrastructure, and many of its large buildings, including unreinforced schools and fire and police stations, would be particularly vulnerable when subjected to severe ground shaking," according to the report.
Bob Nations, Jr., the Director of Shelby County Office of Preparedness, says that since the lack of preparation exposed by Hurricane Katrina, he is "preparing for the catastrophic event" in his six-county jurisdiction.
Nations admitted that after a major quake, Tennessee's infrastructure and response capabilities "would get overwhelmed fairly quickly."
There are 15 nuclear power plants in the New Madrid fault zone -- three reactors in Alabama -- that are of the same or similar design as the site in Japan experiencing problems.
The USGS report predicts that a major quake would create horrific scenes like something out of a science fiction movie, potentially cutting the Eastern part of the country off from the West in terms of vehicular traffic and road commerce.
"The older highways and railroad bridges that cross the Mississippi River, as well as older overpasses, would likely be damaged or collapse in the event of a major New Madrid earthquake," according to USGS.
In September, FEMA's associate administrator for Response and Recovery, William Carwile, told a Senate panel that FEMA has five regional groups planning for possible earthquake responses, but a major quake along the New Madrid fault line could displace 7.2 million people and knock out 15 bridges. The response would require 42,000 first responders from local firefighters to the Pentagon.