Emergency response teams swarmed the operations center of the Missouri National Guard Headquarters, calculating what to do next. They were dealing with the aftermath of a massive earthquake on the New Madrid fault line, and with every decision they were learning what to do in the event of an actual catastrophic disaster.
Today marks the end of a three-day statewide earthquake drill that began Tuesday in Jefferson City. Unlike earthquake drills in schools, this event included agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and representatives from many Missouri counties. The drill comes on the heels of other disasters in Missouri, including the ice storms of January and the flooding along the Missouri River in May. In the event of a large earthquake, Missouri would have to respond to a slew of problems.
“With an earthquake of this size there will be massive flooding, fires and power outages,” said Mark James, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
James, citing experts, said that the New Madrid fault line, which runs through southeast Missouri, is well overdue for a destructive earthquake. The fault experiences 20 small seismic events per month, but the last earthquake with a 6.0 magnitude took place in 1895. The New Madrid Earthquake and its aftershocks in 1811 and 1812 were the largest seismic occurrences east of the Rocky Mountains in the history of the U.S. The effect was larger than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, according to the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.
Within the last week, the U.S. Geological Survey Web site reported three 1.0 to 2.0 magnitude earthquakes on the fault line, each occurring in northwest Tennessee.
“The question is not if, but when, a major earthquake will occur in the New Madrid fault line,” James said.
The state response plan was updated soon after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
“Gov. Blunt saw the devastation of New Orleans, picked up the phone and asked how well we were prepared,” James said. “We had not looked at or updated our plan since 1999.”
The drill took more than two years of planning by the state and is the largest statewide earthquake drill in the history of Missouri, with 81 jurisdictions participating along with state and federal agencies. SEMA director Ronald Reynolds said the total cost of the exercise has not yet been determined but is in excess of $400,000.
“The Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council earmarked federal homeland security training and exercise funds to support this exercise,” Reynolds said.
The scenario took response agencies through a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, allowing them to experience the immediate response as well as the road to recovery. Jurisdictions and agencies were placed in roles as responders, supply distributors, sheltering destinations, and medical responders for more than a month after an earthquake.
“After the first session, someone said that if the exercise stopped right now, we’ve learned a heck of a lot,” Reynolds said on the first day of the drill.
In the event of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, Boone County residents would most likely have difficulty standing, poorly built structures would have considerable damage, heavy furniture would overturn, and sand and gravel stream banks could cave in. The worst damage would occur near the fault line, in the boot heel of Missouri, taking down brick buildings and bridges, moving rocks, changing river paths, and rippling the ground. During the New Madrid Earthquake, there were reports that the Mississippi River ran backward.
Drill participants dealt with search and rescue, planned the restoration of roads and bridges and delivered medical supplies and resources. Local, state and national stockpiles were also tested with the drill, including a central Missouri medical stockpile.
“We need to test our plans and see where our weaknesses are,” James said. “This is an ongoing process. Our plan will never be complete.”
Similar earthquake drills took place simultaneously in Arkansas and Tennessee, two states that would also be affected by activity from the fault.