The other night we watched yet another of those “disasters of the Apocalypse” shows that seem to pop up with almost absurd frequency these days. It’s usually the Discovery Channel, or the History Channel, or the Learning Channel, but they’re on all the time. I suppose it has something to do with the ominous approach of 2012, the year the Mayan calendar ends and a bunch of people believe “the big one” is going to go up.
Didn’t the Mayans live a thousand years ago? Their calendar probably ended in 2012 simply because they found more entertaining ways to occupy their time. Hopefully the weight that lots of people give to this nonsense is mostly just a figment of my imagination, because if it’s not, then there are a lot of people that haven’t (unlike the Mayans) found more entertaining ways to occupy their time.
But I digress. Anyways, this show was one we hadn’t seen before and was narrated by Samuel Jackson. It was sort of a countdown of the various ways lots of people could get killed by disasters. There was a big rainstorm over California at Number 5. Number 4 I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was worse than a container of duck toys spilling into the Pacific. Numbers 2 and 1 were completely predictable. Two was a massive tsunami caused by a volcanic eruption and landslide at La Palma island in the Azores…this has been described on a dozen different “what-if” shows. And of course, Numero Uno was the mega-volcano erupting in Yellowstone, which would lay waste to most of the American existance. Again, we are not surprised, as this potential disaster is also well-known.
It was Number 3 that most caught my attention…an earthquake. To be more specific, an earthquake in the Midwest. Earthquakes in this area aren’t nearly as famous as those occurring around the Pacific Rim and the corresponding Ring of Fire, because they’re so rare. But when the bigger ones hit, they pack a powerful wallop.
The most famous of the “Midwest” quakes on record was a series of temblors that culminated in a tremendous quake in February of 1812. Centered over southeast Missouri, northeast Arkansas, and western Tennessee, the biggest ones were felt over a 1,000,000 square miles and damage was recorded as far away as Maine.
But it all began 200 years ago today…December 16, 1811.
At 2:15 in the morning, people along the New Madrid Fault were thrown from their beds by a tremendous rumbling. They scrambled out of their crumbling homes and got a night-time view of the apocalypse, as the landscape heaved and bucked like a drunken man, under the influence of a quake that would have registered close to 8.0 on the Richter Scale. There were sand blows and landslides, soil liquifaction and, to hear the locals tell it, a brief reversal of the mighty Mississippi River.
Six hours later, another quake similar in scope struck the region again. Too large to be an aftershock, it classifies as its own separate quake. People all over the region were terrified, looking heaven-ward and awaiting the arrival of the Four Horsemen. Damage was extensive, but deaths relatively light because the population was sparse.
For many years, scientists believed that major earthquakes struck along the New Madrid Fault every couple of hundred years. And guess what?…we’re at exactly 200 years today. But seismic activity along the fault has dwindled to a relative handful of very small shakers each year. I read somewhere that geologists think the fault might be seizing up to a point where quakes no longer occur.
But for the millions of residents that live in St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Chicago, and other large cities in the region, there is that small concern. I live in central Iowa, several hundred miles from the fault, but I think about it all the time. Homes in the Midwest are built with tornadoes (and in recent years, flooding) in mind, not earthquakes.
A repeat of the quakes that began two centuries ago would be cataclysmic.