Conference will detail Missouri's earthquake history, future risk

Monday, February 13, 2012 | 4:43 p.m. CST; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 14, 2012

*CORRECTION: Phillip Gould's first name is spelled with two Ls. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled his first name.

COLUMBIA — People thought it was divine punishment. Missouri was turning into hell before their eyes.

Animals screamed, fires burned and the Mississippi River ran backward. Sulfurous vapors saturated the atmosphere, "causing total darkness," wrote Eliza Bryan, a 31-year-old woman living in New Madrid in 1816.

She was describing the violent earthquake that struck the region on Dec. 16, 1811.

Theater professor Cheryl Black will perform Bryan's letter in the reader's theater portion of an MU-sponsored conference called "It's Your Fault," which will be held Saturday to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the monumental earthquakes in Missouri's New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The reader's theater will be preceded by four lectures on topics including the region's cultural history and earthquake seismology. Although the eyewitness accounts selected for the reader's theater provide no data, they still give a picture of history.

"It's another way of presenting scholarly research," Black said. "It's the human experience, the very personal and subjective impact on individuals."

The tongue-in-cheek title implies the responsibility that the conference will emphasize.

One of the lecturers, Phillip Gould*, a senior professor of engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, said the question is not if quakes of this scope will happen again, but when.

Paleoseismic information uncovered since the well-documented earthquakes of 1811 to 1812 shows a history of earthquakes in the New Madrid region every 300 to 500 years, and time is ticking, Gould said.

The three largest in a series of earthquakes and tremors in the New Madrid Seismic Zone occurred between December 1811 and February 1812. They were felt as far north as Pennsylvania and as far southeast as South Carolina. The Richter scale didn't exist then, but scientists estimate magnitudes between 7.0 and 8.6.

Columbia is about 273 miles from New Madrid.

"If we had quakes of that magnitude today, we would feel it in Columbia," said Christine Montgomery, a grant writer for MU libraries who is coordinating the conference. "We would have buildings shaking."

Although Gould will focus on how the government and community can mitigate earthquake damage, he also said some dangers might not be preventable.

"The sheer magnitude of these kinds of events make it hard for anyone to say we're well-prepared," Gould said.

The earthquakes in New Madrid were intraplate earthquakes, a rare breed, Montgomery said. Intraplate earthquakes occur on faults at the interior of tectonic plates, rather than at plate boundaries.

This makes it even harder to understand them.

"It'll probably be frustrating to people who want a definite answer, but it's important to know the scientific community is still trying to understand why we experience earthquakes in that particular area," Montgomery said.

Montgomery said that for this reason, she hopes not only the scientific community, but also city officials and the general public, will take advantage of the conference.

"It's Your Fault" will be held from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in the Chamber Auditorium at the MU Student Center. The conference is free and open to the public.

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