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Major quake in Midwest might kill 6,000 study estimates
Bloomberg News
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Published: 11/21/2008 7:40 AM

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A major Midwestern earthquake may cause 6,000 deaths and $450 billion in damage, while disrupting oil and gas supplies, a U.S. government-sponsored study said.

Tennessee and Missouri would suffer the brunt of the destruction from a 7.7-magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, where more than 3,000 temblors have occurred since 1974, according to the report from the Urbana, Illinois-based Mid-America Earthquake Center. A quake of about that force devastated the region almost 200 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"All those who worked on this project already feel this would be the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S.," said Amr Elnashai, principal investigator and a civil engineering professor at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign, by telephone.

There is a 90 percent chance that an earthquake of magnitude 6 or 7 will strike the area in the next 50 years, said the study, which was released yesterday.

Eight states in the Midwest and South are vulnerable to major earthquakes, including Mississippi, Alabama and Indiana, according to the study, which was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The New Madrid zone runs from southern Illinois to northern Arkansas and includes Memphis, with a population of about 670,900, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

1811 quake

On Dec. 16, 1811, a quake that may have been a magnitude 8.0 struck near New Madrid, Missouri, about 105 miles (169 kilometers) north-northeast of Memphis, according to the USGS. That temblor was the first of five powerful quakes in the region over the following few months that shook an area 10 times larger than the 1906 San Francisco quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's archives.

The quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River, rang church bells in Washington and New York and are considered to be among the largest to hit the U.S, according to the USGS.

There is a 90 percent chance that an earthquake of magnitude 6 or 7 will strike the area in the next 50 years, the study says.

Elnashai said earthquakes of equal magnitude would be felt over a larger area in the New Madrid zone than in California because of the composition of the soil.

Local officials in the area have just started planning for the possibility of a major earthquake, Elnashai said. Those plans aren't coordinated across state lines and don't take into consideration damage to emergency equipment.

Nuclear power plants

Many buildings in the area couldn't withstand the force of such an earthquake, Elnashai said. While some of the major bridges over the Mississippi and other rivers might hold up, they would still sink into the ground when it liquefied after the tremor.

The earthquakes would be felt beyond the eight most vulnerable states, the report said.

There are 15 nuclear power plants in the regions covered by the study, Elnashai said.

Hospitals closest to the epicenter would be unusable, meaning the injured would have to be taken to neighboring states if they could be evacuated, the report said. Bridges, airports and ferries would be damaged and pipelines and electric transmission grids knocked out.

"Damage to major natural gas and oil transmission lines will lead to service interruptions that will affect areas as far away as the East Coast and New England," the report said.

In April, a 5.2 magnitude earthquake occurred in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. While that earthquake occurred on the Wabash Valley Fault, the larger, more power New Madrid zone is less than 200 miles away.