The New Madrid Seismic Zone

The New Madrid Seismic Zone

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According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) stretches from just west of Memphis TN., into southern Illinois and “several of the largest historical earthquakes to strike the continental United States occurred in the winter of 1811-1812 along the NMSZ. (USGS, 2007). This means when another major earthquake hits the region, cities like Memphis TN., Cape Girardeau and St. Louis MO., Paducah KY., and perhaps Nashville TN. and Little Rock AR., will be severely impacted.
Emergency managers in those urban areas and also all the surrounding rural areas have been making plans and preparing for “the big one” and many participated this past spring in the “National Level Exercise (NLE) 2011, one of the largest emergency exercises in U.S. history and the first of its scale to simulate a natural disaster.” (Pittman, 2011).
Emergency planning for a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the NMSZ for the city of Memphis needs to follow the guidelines for a catastrophic event, i.e. an event that is so large in scope that normal jurisdictional mutual aid agreements will not suffice. The emergency plan for Memphis must provide for response and recovery aid from other states, particularly those that may not be impacted by the event. In addition, support from the federal government of the United States should be prearranged, and perhaps support from neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico, may also be prudent.
Infrastructure and structural damage to buildings and homes could necessitate mass evacuations from the city of Memphis after the quake and that will require rapid repair of the major transportation routes in to and out of the city, as well as repairing rail lines and airport runways. Predetermined destinations for the evacuees must be planned for as well. Many residents will choose to evacuate on their own if they are able and established resource (gas, food, water, etc) provisioning along the evacuation routes will need to be in place.
Because Memphis is located on the largest river system in the country possible earthquake affects on the river itself must be considered. The long-term consequence of disrupted shipping of goods along the Mississippi River corridor has the potential to affect international food supplies. The reports from the 1811-1812 earthquakes in the NMSZ provide indications that even the course of the river could be altered and that possibility also has wide reaching affects on commerce, settlement, economic and social structures now in place.

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(Adams, Hand-out). The NLE 2011 involved 3000 plus private sector representatives (Pittman, 2011) as the impact of a catastrophic NMSZ earthquake will require participation from all sectors of society if response and recovery of the region, and particularly the major cities like Memphis, is to occur.

The recovery from catastrophic events can take years, perhaps decades or centuries, and therefore, comprehensive mitigation and planning efforts by emergency management at all levels; local to international, are crucial if survival and the lessening of damage is to be achieved.


Candace Adams. Session 2 – PowerPoint Hand-out for Catastrophic Readiness, CDM4000.

Pittman, E. (2011). National Level Exercise 2011: Lessons Learned and a Look Behind the Scenes. eRepublic, Inc. Retrieved on 8/26/2011 from

United States Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey. (2007). Earthquake Hazard in the Heart of the Homeland Fact Sheet 2006-3125. U.S Government Printing Office: 2006-660-289/11089.
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