MEMPHIS — A new federal study predicts that Tennessee would see the highest level of damage if a major earthquake were to shake the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the southern and central part of the country.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency released the two-year study this week as part of the Catastrophic Earthquake Disaster Response Planning Initiative. Besides Tennessee, the seismic zone includes areas of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri.
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The study predicted that the total economic impact of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault was likely to be "by far the highest economic loss due to a natural disaster in the USA."
The report included state-specific scenarios such as damage levels to buildings, highway bridges, electric power, drinkable water, waste water, communications centers and pipelines from a 7.7 magnitude quake. On the Richter scale, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7 and above is deemed "major," capable of widespread, heavy damage.
In Tennessee, the study predicts that 250,000 buildings would be moderately or more severely damaged, more than 260,000 people would be displaced and many more than 60,000 casualties would be expected. In the state alone, the direct economic losses would surpass $56 billion.
The report is intended to give state and local emergency agencies information to create disaster-response plans.
The central United States is not typically considered a seis mically active region, but the fault line there has a dangerous history. During the winter of 1811-1812, a series of three earthquakes, with magnitudes of about 8, struck northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.
The quakes caused massive landslides along Mississippi and Ohio River bluffs from Memphis to Indiana and created gaping crevices and fissures. Few written accounts exist about the early quakes, but reports said they were strong enough to awaken people in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 7 percent to 10 percent chance of an earthquake similar in intensity in the next 50 years.
The Memphis and St. Louis areas were identified as likely to suffer damage from a major earthquake.
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said the Tennessee Emergency Management Plan outlines how the state will respond to large-scale emergencies, such as earthquakes. The part of the plan dealing with earthquakes was distributed to the local emergency managers for all 95 counties in October, he said.