With a federally overseen exercise to test the nation’s “earthquake response readiness” coming in May 2011, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency this week will participate in a preliminary workshop to prepare for one of the most massive drills of its type in state history.
It’s been almost 200 years since a series of massive earthquakes began on Dec. 16, 1811, and violently shook northeast Arkansas, southeast Missouri and northwest Tennessee. Now called the 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes, the quartet of ground-shaking quakes was so powerful that the mighty Mississippi River appeared to run backwards, creating what is now known as Reelfoot Lake.
To recognize the 200th anniversary of the quakes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and eight states will conduct National Level Exercise 2011 in May. On the state level, TEMA and officials with, among others, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Earthquake Consortium, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and FedEx will meet Tuesday through Friday this week in downtown Nashville for a Resource Allocation Workshop.
At the time of the 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes, the area affected was no more populated with buildings and people than parts of Alaska today, while the commercial transport of goods and agricultural products from one side of the Mississippi to the other was accomplished strictly by boat.
Fast forward two centuries later and the region is vastly different, with each “half” of the nation depending, in part, on huge bridges spanning the big river and allowing the transportation of everything from office furniture to soy beans. Quakes similar to those 200 years ago could devastate St. Louis and Memphis, while the U.S. could effectively be severed in half, its citizens able to span the Mississippi only by air.
“This is significant for Middle Tennessee because the region will be a focal point for supply deployment [in the event of a catastrophic earthquake],” said Jeremy Heidt, TEMA spokesman.
Heidt said the aftermath of May’s flood saw about 200 tractor trailer loads of supplies enter the state per week for the first two weeks after the devastation.
“We would expect 1,500 tractor trailer loads per day and with emergency supplies [including food, water and fuel] if a catastrophic earthquake of 7.0 or above on the Richter scale hit,” he said.
TEMA’s current effort, more than two years in the making, will lead to a variety of exercises next year, culminating with the National Level Exercise 2011. For example, Earthquake Awareness Week in Tennessee will be recognized in February. And on April 28, the state will be part of the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut.
“There’s lot of planning going on,” Heidt said. “We're having regular meetings almost weekly with various committees related to the exercise or planning. There are a lot of moving pieces to preparing for a catastrophic disaster and for a big exercise like this.”
Heidt said a massive quake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone could directly affect the eight states participating.
“They’ll all be asking for the same things,” he said. “How do we decide who should get what first and where should it come from? Search and rescue teams will be at a premium. Imagine all the stuff trying to get into Haiti following that earthquake. In the U.S., there will be approximately 14 million people in the impact region.”
Heidt said officials conservatively estimate, based on computer models, the number of deaths in Tennessee alone to be between 2,000 and 4,000.
“When you start looking at the potential impact for this, the scenarios are almost apocalyptic as to what it means to the country,” he said. “Power grids could be out for weeks.”
Heidt referenced the China earthquake in 2008, which registered 8.0 on the Richter scale. About 69,000 people were killed with another approximately 18,000 listed as missing.
“Fuel lines, natural gas lines, electricity lines … a lot of it goes through Memphis,” he said.
National Level Exercise 2011 will be the first national drill combining federal, state and local agencies to focus on a natural hazard. Previous large-scale exercises have focused on terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“After Katrina, we realized we needed a more robust plan for a catastrophic disaster,” Heidt said. “The May flood was the closest we’ve come.”