Imagine waking up at 2 o‘clock in the morning by a violent rumbling that causes ceilings to fall, furniture to topple over, and windows to break. Your home is crumbling, it is dark, and by the time you realize what is going on the shaking stops. You quickly determine that your family members are okay, but you also realize your power is out, all the windows are broken, and there is substantial damage to your home possibly making it unsafe to remain inside. The temperature outside is in the 20s, there is a heavy snow on the ground, and the flu season is at its peak with two of your family members affected. Unfortunately your family is one of thousands in a similar circumstance and the response to your needs may not be immediate, if at all. Could an earthquake like this happen unannounced? It did in the Central United States during the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12. A resident of New Madrid, Missouri writes (Martin, 1848 ):
‘On the 16th of December 1811, about 2 o‘clock, AM, we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do-the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species-the crackling of trees falling, and the roar of the Mississippi-the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed to an irruption in its bed-formed a scene truly horrible.‘
Eliza Bryan, March 22, 1816
The residents of the Central United States during the great New Madrid earthquake were accustomed to living rugged life styles. Electrical power was not a reality, water was drawn from shallow hand-dug wells or retrieved from streams, food was hunted or grown, and the homes typically were log structures with dirt floors. Though these inhabitants were primitive by today‘s standards, they could survive because they did not rely on the supporting infrastructure we rely on today. What would you do if such an event struck as you read this? As a society, are we prepared for a similar event? Could you live for an extended period without power, refrigeration, heat, air conditioning, or fresh water?
Missouri and its adjacent states have experienced more than 450 recorded earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 since 1964 (Petersen and others, 2008); however, none of these Central United States earthquakes has been as severe as the 1811-12 event. The 1811-12 events actually were a series of three very large earthquakes followed by many smaller but significant aftershocks (Johnston and Schweig, 1984). Ground shaking was reported as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, South Carolina.