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Remembering a Grim Bicentennial – Could 'The Big One' Happen Again?


As we approach the 200th anniversary of one of the largest earthquakes to rumble through the United States, UC geologist Attila Kilinc reveals what the Tristate should expect if 'The Big One' strikes again.

Date: 12/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre

UC ingot   Government agencies have spent the past year preparing for a grim anniversary – the 200th anniversary of one of the largest earthquakes to hit the United States. It struck along the New Madrid fault line in the central U.S.

Officials have also consulted with University of Cincinnati researcher Attila Kilinc, professor of geochemistry, as they prepare emergency responders in the Tristate region should an earthquake disaster strike again.

Attila Kilinc, professor of geochemistry
Attila Kilinc, professor of geochemistry

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that the first in a series of four historic earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone occurred on Dec. 16, 1811. Instrumental measurements of earthquake magnitudes were not available at that time, but the news reports were spectacular as the series of earthquakes were felt throughout the central United States.

FEMA reports that the largest of the earthquakes struck New Madrid, Mo., on Feb. 12, 1812, causing large areas to be uplifted or dropped in elevation.

“There were rumors that the Ohio River started flowing in the wrong direction, that U.S. President James Madison was awakened from his sleep in Washington, D.C., and that church bells were ringing in Boston,” says Kilinc.

“Fortunately, at that time, there were not many people living in the New Madrid zone. Now, there are huge populations in St. Louis, Mo., and Memphis, Tenn., so another major earthquake on the New Madrid fault now would be devastating,” Kilinc says.

Even more disturbing – earthquakes are impossible to predict. This is because prediction requires predicting time, place and magnitude. “Everybody is at a disadvantage in the sense that there is no indication of an earthquake as opposed to a tsunami or tornado,” says Kilinc. “Before a tornado occurs, weather specialists are watching and can issue warnings. Earthquakes can hit at any time.”

fault line

Kilinc explains that the New Madrid fault zone is not a single crack threading through the central U.S. – but that tens and sometimes hundreds of fault lines are running parallel to each other for about 125 miles from Arkansas to Illinois. Because these faults are not exposed at the surface, it’s very difficult to make measurements of movement, and it’s difficult to forecast on which fault the next earthquake might nucleate.

It didn’t just erupt 200 years ago and then go to sleep. Geologists monitor its seismic activity, which has triggered thousands of earthquakes in the years since “The Big One,” yet many of these tremors go unnoticed.

A report from the Mid-America Earthquake Center indicates that if a 7.7 magnitude earthquake activated all three segments of the New Madrid Fault Zone, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri would be the most devastatingly affected, and that Illinois and Kentucky would be harshly impacted as well.

Attila Kilinc, professor of geochemistry

Kilinc says Cincinnati does not have any major faults on which earthquakes can be nucleated, but the intensity of a 7.7 magnitude quake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone could crumble chimneys – which was reported in Cincinnati 200 years ago – and cause landslides from our hilly terrain. There would be damage to historic, brick buildings that would get a good shaking.

Liquefaction – an effect on saturated soil that would lose strength in an earthquake, would cause landslides and affect Tristate homes near the river, Kilinc says.

He does not expect our bridges to be affected. In fact, Cincinnati would be considered a city to call on when its neighbors are more affected by the disaster.

Here’s Kilinc’s Top 10 List of Damages Caused by Earthquakes

1. Collapse of buildings, elevated highways and railroad tracks
2. Breaking water and gas lines
3. Loss of electric power
4. Fires
5. Landslides and mudslides
6. Liquefaction
7. Death
8. Disruption of communication
9. Tsunami
10. Economic Loss

Kilinc has these tips about What to Do Before, During and After an Earthquake

Preceding an Earthquake

Stock Up on Emergency Supplies – Be prepared with a portable radio, flash lights, first aid kit, pipe or crescent wrenches to turn off gas and water supplies, enough water and meals for at least one week, needed medications and a small bottle of chlorine to purify water.

Know the Following – The safest place in your home or office; locations of your gas, electric and water main shutoffs; a place where your family can unite after the earthquake; locations of your nearest fire and police stations.

During an Earthquake

If you are indoors, stay indoors. Get under a desk or table. Stay clear of windows, heavy furniture or appliances.

If you are outdoors, stay outdoors. Get into an opening away from buildings and power lines. If you are driving, stop, but stay inside your vehicle.

After an Earthquake

Check for injuries: Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. If the lights go out, do not search for a gas leak with a match (use a flashlight). Do not turn the gas on, let the gas company do that. Do not use your telephone and tie up lines, except for emergencies.

Safety check: Shut off the main gas valve if you suspect a gas leak. If there is damaged electrical wiring, shut off the power at the control box. Check your food and water supplies to make sure that they are not contaminated.

Past Predictions

The last prediction of an impending earthquake along the New Madrid fault resulted in a media circus in 1990, when climatologist Iben Browning predicted a 50-50 chance of a major earthquake to strike that December, based on the position and forces of the moon and planets. December 1990 came and went. So did the media trucks that had descended upon New Madrid, Mo., to wait for The Big One. Browning died of a heart attack in 1991.