Eliza Bryan awoke at 2 a.m. Dec. 16 to the calamity of the earth’s violent shiver. An awful sound, a loud but distant thunder was accompanied by a shaking of the ground. Sulphurous clouds arose and blotted the night sky as the residents of the small Missouri town of New Madrid joined the beasts and birds in a choir of screaming and screeching and squalling. The chaos continued into dawn as residents fled to the hills.
So began the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. The tremors, which continued for months, rang church bells in Charleston, South Carolina, stopped clocks in Annapolis, Maryland, and tested the sea legs of sailors along the eastern coast.
It also confirmed prophecy for members of the Creek confederacy. The Creek, also known as the Muscogee, is a Native American tribe that once controlled vast territories across the southeastern United States, but in the early 1800s, they were facing increasing pressure from the U.S. government to relocate to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
The threat of losing their homes made tribal members particularly receptive to the message of Tecumseh, the charismatic leader of a multi-tribal band of warriors opposing settler encroachment.
At a gathering a few months before the earthquakes, Tecumseh told members of the Creek he would ascend the top of a high mountain. There, he would whoop three times, clap his hands three times and stamp his foot three times, causing the whole earth to tremble.
And it did.
Nowadays, rather than mountain tops, prophecies are more commonly issued from ivory towers. University and government researchers divine catastrophe through calculations and computers.
Federal money funnels into labs in Memphis, Tennessee, and Urbana, Illinois, where scientists analyze earthen crust for signs of ancient disruption and study the scribbles made across the revolving drums of seismographs.
Divination is tough work. The mysteries of the New Madrid remain elusive, but the stakes are high in southern Missouri. The state sits on a simmering pot of primordial forces threatening to unleash catastrophe.
A 7.7 magnitude earthquake, similar in strength to the ones that struck in the early 1800s, would damage about 84,000 buildings and destroy 37,000 more, almost entirely residences, according to a 2008 report from the Mid-America Earthquake Center.
Over 15,000 people would be killed. An additional 120,000 would be displaced.
Nearly 200 schools and over 100 fire stations would be damaged; 37 hospitals and 67 police stations would be inoperable the day after the earthquake in the state of Missouri. Thousands of bridges would collapse and railways would be destroyed, paralyzing travel across southeast Missouri. Total damages to the state would reach nearly $40 billion, the report states.
Scientists say they believe there is a 7% to 10% chance such an earthquake strikes within the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the next 50 years. There is a 25% to 45% chance of a 6.0 magnitude or greater earthquake striking in that time.
In a cavernous storage unit at the University of Missouri Department of Geological Sciences building, hides a green, egg-shaped seismometer about the size of a pumpkin. “That’s our principal tool,” Professor Eric Sandvol says. “It’s an incredibly rich and very important data set.”
Seismometers like Sandvol’s register about 100 small earthquakes every year in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Six struck on Oct. 27, 2019, alone, the largest of them a 2.8 magnitude quake just south of Tiptonville, Tennessee.
Despite this data, scientists are still not certain what is actually causing the earthquakes.
Approximately 95% of all earthquakes on the planet happen at plate boundaries. The most common cause is the grinding of tectonic plates — pieces of the earth’s crust and mantle — as they drift like glaciers across the planet’s surface. As those plates grind, they generate tremendous tension, which is eventually released in the form of an earthquake.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone is not on a plate boundary, however. Nestled in the center of the continent, the zone is about as far from the plate boundaries of North America as it can get, Sandvol says. Instead, there is an aulacogen, or failed rift, within this seismic zone. It was created when the continent tried to tear itself apart hundreds of millions of years ago, and for a long time it was believed that failed rift was causing the seismic activity.
But aulacogens are quite common, Sandvol says, and few of them are seismically active. A massive aulacogen extends across the Plains and hooks into Michigan, but very few earthquakes are reported in Kansas, Nebraska or Iowa.
New theories have been offered based on the relatively young age of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. One suggests those ice sheets compressed the continental plate. It has been slowly bouncing back over thousands of years. The decompression causes tension within the crust, thus leading to earthquakes. However, it is not relevant with the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Another theory suggests melting glacier runoff caused massive sediment loads to be washed down into the Mississippi River Basin, and the crushing weight of that material compressed the plate.
ON SHAKY GROUND
Not all scientists are even convinced the New Madrid is an active seismic zone. Seth Stein, a professor at Northwestern University, has argued that “zombie science,” or disproved theories, has been used by government officials to justify overblown fears about a catastrophic earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
Stein’s team at Northwestern University has collected almost 20 years of GPS data in the seismic zone, and little to no fault-related deformation has been recorded, which indicates that the major earthquakes that plagued the region have ended, though smaller earthquakes can still occur.
Stein’s theories frustrate scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey. They say they believe the region is overdue for a big earthquake, and communities need to prepare for it, Sandvol says. “It has gotten, on occasion, quite nasty, this debate,” he says.
For instance, the state has not adopted seismic building codes but has left it up to local jurisdictions to decide whether buildings should be built to withstand an earthquake. That has left a perilous gap in the state’s protection system, according to FEMA, which notes adoption and enforcement of building codes at the local level can be a critical weak link in safety plans.
Sandvol, who has served on the Missouri Seismic Safety Commission for years, says he has been told statewide building codes are not “politically viable.” He’s particularly concerned about schools. The commission offers free rapid visual screenings to identify seismic risks at schools, and experts have identified a lot of buildings constructed from unreinforced masonry.
The problems don’t end with infrastructure. The Seismic Safety Commission, a 17-member body of specialists from across a variety of fields, was created to review Missouri’s current preparedness for major earthquakes and make recommendations to mitigate impact.
But Sandvol says for years the governor’s office, under several administrations, has failed to appoint new members to the commission, hindering its efforts to inspect schools and bring awareness to the state’s problems.
The commission currently has seven vacancies, according to Jeff Briggs, the earthquake program manager for Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. Candidates have applied to fill the positions, but Gov. Mike Parson hasn’t approved them.
Kelli R. Jones, communications director for the governor’s office, initially said her office’s records only showed three vacancies on the commission. When pressed on the point, Jones says more members might have stepped down or resigned without informing her office. She says the seismic safety commission is still able to meet quorum and conduct official business.
The earthquake of Dec. 16, 1811, was only the first of three major earthquakes to strike in the region around the new year. Another smaller earthquake hit Jan. 23, 1812, and then a final powerful one struck Feb. 7, 1812, devastating the town of New Madrid.
Though scientists question some descriptions contained in the historical record, no one doubts the quakes were powerful, each one estimated between 7.0 and 8.0 magnitude.
Due to the sparse population in the region at the time, loss of life was minimal, but the fissures, liquefied soil, landslides and sand blows destroyed buildings and sullied farmland. In 1815, Congress passed the nation’s first relief act, which authorized the sale of public lands to those who had lost property to the devastation.
Despite good intentions, the relief act was a boondoggle. Before news of the government’s generosity reached the frontier, speculators had swarmed New Madrid to purchase damaged property at bargain prices.
Those displaced by the quakes gathered up their belongings and moved to other areas, including Boone County.
Today, some local land still reflects that history. It’s identified not with a legal description but a New Madrid claim number. Those properties were settled by survivors of the New Madrid earthquakes.
Missouri’s plan for addressing a catastrophic earthquake is outlined in a 590-page report. It details the steps government officials would take following a catastrophic earthquake.
In the earthquake’s immediate aftermath, crews would work to establish emergency communications and conduct damage and safety assessments. Emergency personnel would conduct search and rescue operations, fight fires and contain hazardous materials.
Maintaining lines of supply and transportation would be critical. With many bridges and roads destroyed, air routes could be used to move first responders and resources — medicine, food, water and fuel — into the damaged areas. The government would need to house and feed thousands of displaced people as well as pets, many of which would likely be separated from their loved ones.
The injured would be treated at operational hospitals or mobile emergency medical centers. Law enforcement officers would patrol evacuated areas, secure shelters and control traffic. Public affairs personnel would disseminate emergency information through whatever communication channels remained operational after the earthquake.
Throughout the recovery efforts, aftershocks would hamper operations and response.
If you were asleep in bed at 2 a.m. in Columbia when a severe earthquake hit the New Madrid, you’d know it. It’d shake and break windows, send dishes and glassware tumbling, knock books off of shelves and flip furniture.
Boone County is considered one of the 45 critical counties in the state that would experience substantial shaking, though it would be less severe than in the Bootheel. The county’s mitigation plan expects slight damage from a 6.7 magnitude earthquake — about $611,000 in building damages.
But a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, which would be about 10 times greater in strength, would be significantly more devastating, causing $73.4 million in structural damages in the county and an additional $258 million in nonstructural damage. Injuries and loss of life are estimated to be low, even in the worst-case scenario.
Sherril Gladney, the planning and preparedness specialist for the Boone County Office of Emergency Management, says the state considers the county a “support county,” meaning it would assist in the evacuation of people from more severely damaged areas.
Gladney says the office promotes personal preparedness as a way to mitigate the risks of an earthquake, since government resources are limited and have huge demand. “So if more people are personally prepared and can take care of their own needs, then we can prioritize the use of those resources for people and places that have experienced the most impact,” she says.
THE PREPPER'S PRAYER
Not everyone is waiting for the white knight of government to save them. On preppergroups.com, survivalists seek out like-minded community members with skills in canning, animal husbandry, basic firearm use and even bomb shelter repair.
Spero “Steve” Spanios, one of the site’s users, is a 58-year-old veteran and retired pipefitter homesteading a 12-acre farm in Mansfield, about an hour east of Springfield.
Born in Okinawa, Japan, and raised in Florida, Spanios was always a tinkerer, but he first became interested in disaster preparation after the Y2K scare. Before buying his farm, he says he studied the risks of natural disasters in different parts of the country to ensure he was not located in any major disaster zones, including the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
He says earthquakes rank in his top five when it comes to disaster concerns, behind political or social unrest and extreme weather anomalies. He says to prepare for a violent earthquake, he built a small cabin on heavy pavers over a bed of shock-absorbing gravel. Thick rubber bands and cardboard insulate his glass bottles of preserved food.
Energy is crucial: He has thousands of gallons of propane in storage, but what is more important is water, particularly if the earthquake bursts utility pipes.
Spanios admits he does not know the details of the government’s plan for an earthquake, but he is skeptical. “All governments are underfunded, understaffed and totally unprepared for everything,” he says.
Spanios says disaster is God’s will. America is an empire in decline, debauched and degraded, the world’s largest exporter of immorality. If an earthquake strikes, it’s divine providence, a punishment for people who tried to become their own gods.
Spanios isn’t shy about his beliefs. Under the YouTube name YesuMessiah, he uploads videos lamenting in a talk radio voice the ills of our wayward nation.
“The world is in error and on the broad path to destruction, but praise the Lord that we have power and salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord,” he says on completing his sermon.
No sign yet of the earth’s tremble.