Midwest earthquake highlights need for preparedness

Monday, April 21, 2008 | 6:12 p.m. CDT; updated 5:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MILLINGTON, Tenn. — Military rescue teams training to respond to a killer earthquake crawled through tons of broken concrete and twisted metal today to get a feel for what they’ll face if a major temblor hits the central United States.

And though the five-day training exercise for National Guard troops from four states had been planned for months, it took on a fresh urgency following a 5.2 magnitude quake and a series of aftershocks that rattled nerves across the region on Friday and through the weekend.

The temblor, centered in southeastern Illinois, underscores the fact that earthquakes are “no-notice events,” said Jim Bassham, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

“What we’re doing here is to prepare for no notice because there’ll be no notice,” Bassham said as his agency joined in the training exercise centered at the National Guard armory at Millington, a small town north of Memphis.

More than 1,700 National Guard personnel from Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri were taking part in the exercise that began Saturday. The training scenario assumed that a huge earthquake — 7.6 magnitude — had hit at Memphis, which is about 50 miles from the New Madrid fault, a series of cracks in the earth’s surface believed capable of producing major temblors.

The Illinois quake, centered in a largely rural area, caused little damage, though it reportedly could be felt from Nebraska to Atlanta.

“The little rumble we had the other day, with an actual earthquake, I think set the tone for the exercise that we’re all here to do today,” said Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley, director of the Air National Guard, Arlington, Va.

For the exercise, the Air Guard flew in a small emergency field hospital packed up in modular units for rapid deployment and reassembly. Such hospitals, called Expeditionary Medical Support or EMEDS, can be staffed by the Guard or with medical personnel from the local area whose regular hospitals may be unusable.

“What they’re doing in an area that’s hardest hit is triage, trying to process as many people as they can and move those people to the hospitals that have not been damaged,” McKinley said.

The training exercise focused largely on medical care, communications and rescue.

A 3,700-ton mound of broken concrete, twisted rebar, crushed cars and steel beams was piled near the Memphis Fire Department training academy to simulate a collapsed hospital.

Rescue crews with the Illinois National Guard, wearing yellow moon suits because of a make-believe radiological hazard, pulled pretend victims from the wreckage and carried them to nearby medical tents for decontamination and treatment.

The New Madrid fault system runs about 120 miles from northeastern Arkansas to southern Illinois. It produced a series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 with strengths estimated at more than 7.0 magnitude. Some 200 temblors are recorded on the fault system annually but the vast majority are too weak even to be felt.

But scientists say the New Madrid is still capable of producing big quakes. Chances for a magnitude 6.0 or larger quake, which could cause serious damage depending on where along the fault system it struck, are put at 25 percent to 40 percent over 50 years.

The most recent large New Madrid quake, estimated at magnitude 6.5, struck in 1895 near Charleston, Mo.

Last week’s quake in Illinois was over the Wabash fault zone, which some scientists say may be related to the New Madrid fault system. The strongest Wabash temblor in recent history was a magnitude 5.3 quake in southern Illinois in 1968.

In the same way Friday’s quake brought focus to the Tennessee exercise, organizers of an earthquake-preparedness seminar in Metropolis, Ill., planned for May said it’s helping draw more attendees.

“The earthquake was good timing. We have PR in high places,” said Linda Poston, a staff member for an extension office covering five southern Illinois counties. “Isn’t that ironic? We couldn’t believe it.”

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