Little-known U.S. Fault Lines Cause For Seismic Concern About Potential Earthquakes

Millions of Americans do, U.S. ill-prepared to handle quakes in Midwest.

March 15, 2011, 12:26 PM

March 15, 2011 -- 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.

Another study by the Mid-America Earthquake Center last year estimates that nearly 750,000 buildings would be damaged, 3,000 bridges would potentially collapse, 400,000 breaks and leaks to local pipelines and $300 billion in direct damage and $600 billion in indirect losses would occur.

"Although Memphis is likely to be the focus of major damage in the region, St. Louis, Mo., Little Rock, Ark., and many small and medium sized cities would also sustain damage, " the U.S.. Geological Survey found.

A 2008 report released by FEMA found that a 7.7 scale quake would cause "widespread and catastrophic physical damage" in this region. The FEMA report offered the probability of a major quake of 7.5 to 8.0 to be somewhere between 7 and 10 percent probability. The probability of a quake of 6.0 or greater is higher is 25 to 40 percent.

The government is planning some mock training and preparedness exercises this spring.

South Carolina is home to an active fault line, which could also produce a catastrophic earthquake.

A quake in Charleston in 1886 was a magnitude 7.6. That city in 2008 had a population in excess of 348,000. Much of that state's coastal area is at risk.

Both Hawaii and Alaska are in the red danger zone in terms of massive earthquakes.

A report by the New York Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation stated that , "In past centuries, earthquakes with Magnitude 5.0 have occurred about every 100 years in the New York City area. Modern New York City is ill prepared even for such moderate events. Although New York City is a region with low seismic hazard - meaning there are infrequent damaging earthquakes - it actually has high seismic risk because of its tremendous assets. The extreme concentration of buildings, and the fragility of its structures, most of which haven't been seismically designed, mean that even a relatively minor quake could cause major damage." Add subways and tunnels to the list of problems in New York. The area of the city most susceptible to damage would be the Upper East Side.

For more on fault lines within the United States, Click HERE.

As for U.S. government preparedness, Congress requested a national response plan for natural disasters from FEMA in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina and the resulting floods. But the comprehensive plan has not yet been completed.

"Until such a framework is in place, FEMA will not have a basis to operationalize and implement its conceptual approach for assessing local, state, and federal preparedness capabilities against capability requirements to identify capability gaps for prioritizing investments in national preparedness," according to the government's nonpartisan watchdog, the General Accounting Office, in an October 2010 letter to Congress.

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