This year marks the 200th anniversary of the infamous "New Madrid Earthquakes," earthquakes that tore through the central United States in 1811 and 1812. A sequence of four of the largest North American earthquakes ever recorded destroyed the Mississippi River Valley town of New Madrid, Missouri. The intense shaking was felt along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast, and even up into Canada.
The immediate devastation covered an area that now includes parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, along the New Madrid Seismic Zone. The third of these earthquakes, which occurred on February 7, 1812, permanently changed the course of the Mississippi River, flooded the town of New Madrid completely, and caused homes in St. Louis to crumble. Although people died in the New Madrid earthquakes, the death tolls were small, as the population of the town at that time was only about 400 residents.
Today, more than 40 million people live and work in the region, and similar natural disasters continue to pose a serious threat. We were reminded of the unpredictable nature of seismic activity when much of western Arkansas felt a 5.6 magnitude earthquake centered in Oklahoma last fall. Unfortunately, in our region, there is potential for much greater and more violent quakes, not unlike those that occurred two centuries ago.
Scientists estimate that there is a 25 to 40 percent probability of a large, damaging earthquake occurring in the central U.S. within the next 50 years. Recognizing that prepared public officials and citizens are better able to sustain themselves in the aftermath of disaster, Arkansas has taken precautions. For the past 20 years, all public structures in established zones have be designed and constructed to better sustain earthquake damage. Last year, Arkansas's governmental agencies participated in a national exercise that simulated the catastrophic nature of a major earthquake in this region. Arkansans were also among the three-million people across ten states who participated in last year's Great Central U.S. ShakeOut.
The ShakeOut multistate earthquake drill will be held once again this year at 10:15 a.m. Central Time on February 7. Individuals interested in taking part this year may go online and pledge their participation at www.shakeout.org.
Earthquakes strike without notice, and you may have only seconds to protect yourself. But the potential for such an emergency is cause for preparation, not panic. By practicing earthquake preparedness at home, you can help prevent a life-threatening disaster from becoming a personal catastrophe for you and your loved ones. On the state level, we will continue preparing and practicing our earthquake response in case such a historic disaster ever strikes Arkansas again.