Blogging on EARTH: FEMA's plans for New Madrid

by Carolyn Gramling
Thursday, January 5, 2012

This year is the 200th anniversary of the New Madrid quakes, the series of magnitude-7 to -8 earthquakes that rocked parts of Missouri and Arkansas in the winter of 1811-1812. But even 200 years later, the quakes continue to shake things up. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is taking precautions — or maybe not.

The earthquakes occurred on several faults in the New Madrid seismic zone, including the Reelfoot Fault, which cuts across the Mississippi River. They altered the course of the river and caused a great deal of damage to the communities nearby, in part due to soil liquefaction. But other often-told stories of the quakes' impacts have since been proven untrue, such as the story that the ground shaking rang churchbells as far away as Boston, Mass. (More likely, says Seth Stein, a seismologist at Northwestern University, those churchbells were in Charleston, S.C., which is a lot closer.)

Scientists at FEMA and the U.S. Geological Survey warn that the New Madrid zone is still an active source of danger — but some scientists, particularly Stein, have fought this, stating that the current estimations of hazard are overkill, in part based on GPS data. In fact, these data suggest the fault is dying, Stein says. He explains this idea in greater detail in his 2010 book on the subject, "Disaster Deferred: How New Science is Changing Our View of Earthquake Hazards in the Midwest."

FEMA, meanwhile, continues to state that the hazard in the region is significant, and to urge retrofitting of buildings and other earthquake mitigation measures — which, Stein maintains, places an unnecessary financial burden on the communities in the region. And now, Stein says, the story of FEMA and New Madrid has gotten "weirder."

In January, FEMA put out a request for information (RFI) looking for suppliers to stockpile emergency blankets, bottled water and 140 million pre-packaged meals for 7 million survivors — "in support of disaster relief efforts based on a catastrophic disaster event within the New Madrid Fault System," the RFIs noted.

The meals cost about $10 each, so at 140 million of them, the stockpile would cost more than $1 billion. Whether that means that FEMA is anticipating a very strong New Madrid earthquake within the next three years isn't clear — but the RFI does specify a remaining shelf-life for the meals of only three years.

So what is this all about? It may be that this is part of FEMA's plans to commemorate the quakes in May: The agency is planning to coordinate a regional-level catastrophic response and recovery exercise, incorporating people at the federal, state, city and individual levels, as part of an effort to educate people not in California or other earthquake-aware states about what to do.

So it may be part of an exercise. Still, an interesting twist occurred only a week later: The pre-packaged meal RFI was canceled. The blanket and water RFIs, however, are still active, at least at present.

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