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New Madrid Seismic Zone

The New Madrid Seismic Zone extends from Cairo Illinois to near Memphis. Little shakes happen about every day. It has a history of shaking violently about every 500 years. There is evidence the big shakes go WAY back.

New Madrid FaultViolent shaking in 1811-12 meant folks especially in river bottom areas, from Buffalo, NY, to the Carolinas, awoke with a feeling like being on a rough ocean, and seeing the doors and hanging lamps silently sway.

So will it, or won't it happen again in a big way? A handful of scientists are trying to prove the fault is dying. And faults DO die. Little shakes, mostly below magnitude 3, -- the locals treat as a passing train or thunderstorm.

The fault is all underground here: no permanently visible scars on the surface. What makes it harder to predict is this location is in the MIDDLE of a tectonic plate, which is different than two plates scraping together. This was the west edge of the country in 1811-12. If the same thing happened again, we might be burying thousands and our economic and transportation system would take decades to fully recover.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, this website was getting 30+ hits a day. After Katrina, it has increased a bit with each big quake episode in the news. .A typical weekday brings a few hundred... with 16,000 - 20,000 curious visitors in one day just after a big quake somewhere in the world.

Status of "New Madrid Fault" - Will it or won't it (shake violently, soon)?

No one can say for sure. If you see another news report that it is dying, take it with a grain of salt. Make some preparations and give thought how you would fare for at LEAST three days in your own house without utilities.


Iben Browning incident, unsolid sand


Iben Browning based his 50-50 prediction of a major early-December 1990 New Madrid quake on peak gravitational pressure on the earth's crust from the moon and planets.

A 4.6 magnitude earthquake centered at New Hamburg, Mo., between Sikeston and Cape Girardeau, shook the region on September 26, 1990, directly on the Commerce Geophysical Lineament. No one tightly connected it with Browning's prediction, but it and the national media attention increased local folks' confusion as we headed into the predicted time. An expert analysis of 1992 found that a change in the barometric pressure or the river level could have just as much effect as Browning's concerns.

I am a former newsman who attempted to report on the hubbub. A popular Detroit radio celebrity put me on the air, three times, intent on laughing at the whole situation. I put a St. Louis University seismologist on the air saying the needles were quieter than usual during that time.

I visited downtown New Madrid on that Sunday afternoon when broadcast trucks from Detroit to Dallas were parked in the downtown area of the town, population 3,200. I counted 45 vehicles.

The parking and extra phone lines for the vehicles appeared to be very neatly planned. A sheriff's deputy minding the jail a block away wondered why CBS alone needed five large satellite trucks from different cities.

Levee hasn't broken yet

CNN was halfway up on the Mississippi River levee, beside the museum, reporting at least once an hour that a quake had not threatened the levee just yet!. All were in grave danger if a big one had really happened.

Downtown New Madrid

Downtown New Madrid from levee.
Museum is at right

The Missouri Governor decided the National Guard needed a practice run of setting up a mobile hospital at the Cape airport that very weekend, but insisted it had nothing to do with Browning's prediction.

10 years after Iben (National Geographic)

Retired biologist?

Climatologist? Why did the media think he, in the New Mexico desert, knew more than the seismologists? Perhaps he fooled some quasi-experts because he sounded very intelligent. Once the frenzy began, it fed itself. A Paducah KY newspaper wisely decided to ignore the mess.

skeptic | overview | NY TImes | Feldman on frenzy | day the earth stood still

The USGS will send you 250 pages about the Iben Browning aftermath, for free.

USGS CIRCULAR 1083 -- write to  USGS Map Distribution, Box 25286, Building 810, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225

AP's ode to Iben on his death

Iben died several months later. The person who "beat the drum" for him locally was David Stewart, a Cape Girardeau University Professor. The incident did heighten awareness of the fault zone.

Stewart left his job months later, wrote books and gave tours about the telltale signs of sand boils and such, which Bootheelians take for granted in their everyday lives. He is now into aroma therapy.

"It's like crying 'wolf'; We don't pay attention anymore" - local New Madrid newspaper editor on NMSZ seismicity.


More about the 1990 incident

Residents chuckled at the commotion. Tom's Grill served up an "Earthquake Burger" (with a split down the middle of the bun). A local museum sold "It's Not My Fault" T-shirts.

"That was our 15 minutes in the sun," says city administrator Furgison Hunter. "If something real would happen here, we already store water and tell people to turn their gas off." H.H. "Buddy" Townsend, who runs an insurance agency on Main Street, recalls waking up in the night as a young man, with earthquakes sounding like a herd of buffalo running outside his window. Recently, he was cleaning out a shed and found an earthquake survival kit dating back to the 1990 scare. "The kit still had water," he says. "What it tasted like, I don't know. But, really, we don't worry about this. We were raised with earthquakes." - USA Weekend, Sept 3, 2004

Self certification of earthquake rules

We covered controversy over a convention center built on the Paducah riverfront. There were charges that it did not meet earthquake standards. Kentucky architecture laws were strict on the need for adequate earthquake-resistant construction, yet the architect, with enough certifications on his wall, could certify that his own plans were sufficient because of the special open-center construction of the building.

It's easy to see why builders and financiers balk at paying a few extra million dollars for quake protection, when the need -may- be overstated, or the best laid plans wouldn't help, anyway, if the entire area were crumbled from a big quake.

Did the strains and weaknesses in the bedrock of New Madrid come because of a big glacier(s) that stopped in central and southern Illinois, one just south of Carbondale, IL, and pushed the New Madrid subsurface?

Or did the fault (attempted separation) come when the ancient landmasses formed the continents we now know? Probably it was some of both. Consider how well the Mason-Dixon line has endured different types of stresses.

New Madrid in 1811

Book excerpt --- New Madrid was a favorite stopping-off place for river boatmen bound in both directions, and on any given day, the boats would arrive by the dozen. A frontier missionary once counted a hundred vessels in New Madrid's harbor.

Mississippi RiverThere were boats loaded with planks from New York; dry goods from Ohio; pork, flour, whiskey, hemp, tobacco, bagging, and bale rope from Kentucky; similar items plus cotton from Tennessee; peltry and lead from Missouri; and cattle and horses from Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. Some boats were floating mercantile establishments.

When the boatmen pulled into port, fiddle music filled the air, accompanied by a veritable barnyard symphony of roosters, pigs, cattle, horses, and turkeys, as the boatmen leaped from one boat to the next, meeting and greeting, renewing old acquaintances, forging new ones, dancing, gambling, and drinking. As a class, the boatmen were a rough-hewn lot -- tough, wild, profane, and prone to violence.

One of the boatmen's favorite amusements was called "sweeping." Taking a rope from one of the boats, a gang of rowdies would go ashore. One half of the bunch took one side of the street and the other half went across. With the rope stretched taut between them, the two groups advanced up the road, bringing down whoever and whatever was unfortunate enough to be in their path. Men, women, children, carts, horses, and cattle went sprawling to the ground, while the boatmen laughed uproariously at the chaos they had created.

After enough of these incidents, townspeople began to fight back.

from When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes - By Jay Feldman, published March 2005

The city originated as a fur-trading post, established in 1783 by French-Canadian trappers, and was settled by American pioneers six years later.

God is great!

We've encountered some Godly folks who are sincerely skeptical of claims the universe is any more than 10,000 years old. The "begats" in the Bible supposedly take you back through Christ, Moses, and Adam and Eve, within that period of time. We suggest that an appreciation of the thousands, millions, even a few billion years of history of our continent only show how awesome God really is.

How soon will the "big one" come, and how big will it be? Well, we've got other things to think about, today, so we'll just expect that it won't happen today.

-- fredkel at gmail com

New Madrid fish market of the 1940s. Around the bend to the left 130 years earlier was a sudden waterfall. A bit farther was a Mississippi River uplift of several feet for a short time.

To the right, less than a kilometer was another uplift. Seven miles or so, downstream to the right, was another waterfall.

New Madrid's downtown dropped more than 10 feet in the 1812 quake.

New Madrid Riverfront old postcard

New Madrid courthouse - old postcard 1932 ?



Postcard New Madrid Mo

New Madrid Ferry 1938

New Madrid Ferry 1938


New Madrid map




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