CHESTERFIELD — In the four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Missouri's emergency management director says emergency responders elsewhere in the nation have asked themselves what would be their Katrina.
"Ours," State Emergency Management Agency director Paul Parmenter said, "is the New Madrid fault."
Parmenter spoke Wednesday to about 250 mass care professionals gathered in suburban St. Louis for a two-day conference to discuss how they would respond to a catastrophic earthquake that could rock several states along the fault. Hundreds of thousands of people would be displaced.
"We know it's a possibility," he said.
Three earthquakes, centered near New Madrid in southeast Missouri, struck the region in 1811 and 1812. There are accounts of the Mississippi River temporarily flowing backward and church bells ringing in Boston from the earthquakes, now believed to have been magnitude 8.0.
Several central states could experience damage from a strong Midwest earthquake. The New Madrid fault runs through Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi. Illinois and Indiana are on the Wabash fault, an interconnected system, SEMA spokeswoman Susie Stonner said.
Waddy Gonzalez, the mass care unit chief at the Federal Emergency Management Administration, said he hopes other states will hold similar gatherings.
Getting aid to Midwest earthquake victims poses numerous challenges. Roads and bridges could be destroyed or would need to be found structurally sound before people could be evacuated. Communication and power systems could be hard hit. A severe earthquake, with aftershocks, could mean community buildings normally used for emergency shelter might become unsafe.
In those instances, plans call for use of some unconventional housing like the possible use of large tents or even riverboats as places where people could stay if needed, Gonzalez said.
"There are paddle boats that would have rooms that could be used," he said following a speech at the conference. FEMA provided some temporary housing on a few cruise ships following Hurricane Katrina, he noted.
Emergency responders said they've learned from Katrina as well as more recent natural disasters, such as ice storms and flooding, in Missouri.
They were using the gathering for federal, state and local agencies to address the best ways to provide long-term food, shelter and supplies.
They've also realized that more needs to be done to provide shelter for people with special needs as well as pets. Many people don't want to evacuate an area hit by disaster unless they know their pets can be cared for.
"We have to wake up to the reality that people think of their pets like they're part of the family," Gonzalez said.
More work is being done to improve systems that will help states determine what supplies are on hand among them, and how emergency responders can request them from other states and be properly reimbursed, he said.
Emergency responders stressed, too, that people should prepare themselves and their families.
"I think there's a mindset that in a natural disaster, the government will be able to take care of them," Perry County Emergency Management director Jack Lakenan said, "but there may be pockets of people we can't get to for days."
His county, about 80 miles south of St. Louis, is creating plans for receiving evacuated people from elsewhere as well as for handling mass destruction if a major quake hits.