The study — completed late last year and turned over to FEMA but only just publicly released — focuses on Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee, where
the New Madrid seismic zone lies deep underground, as well as Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Indiana and Alabama.
The fault zone has a long history of big earthquakes, including four in 1811 and 1812 estimated to have been magnitude 7.0 or greater. The region was
sparsely populated but the quake caused land slides and waves on the Mississippi that swamped boats; it also opened deep fissures in the ground. The
shaking was felt as far away as New England.
The Illinois study assumed a magnitude-7.7 quake based on recommendations from the U.S. Geological Survey, Elnashai said.
About 7.2 million people wouldn't be able to live in their homes, at least not within a few days after the initial quake, and 2 million would
"Many, many, many — maybe 80 percent — of the numbers you are seeing in the report would turn into long-term dislocation," Elnashai said.
The study also concluded that nearly 715,000 buildings would be damaged and 2.6 million households would be without electricity.
The study predicts extensive damage in both St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., the two largest cities near the fault zone.
"There are also disruptions of the transport system that we think will be debilitating," he said. "(State and local governments) will need to fix
and repair lots of bridges, more than we're ready to handle."
Utilities also are likely to struggle to find enough contractors to quickly repair what could be many substantial natural gas leaks, the study
The study urges state and local governments to retrofit hospitals, fire stations, police stations, nuclear power plants and other essential facilities
to improve their odds of holding up in a big quake.
The study should be a planning tool for the affected states, Elnashai said. But he said it should also help convince state officials and the public
that preparedness is worth considering and paying for, particularly during a recession.
"Everybody's having trouble making their cases (for money)," he said.
In Tennessee, recent floods already have shown emergency planners some of the things they're not ready for.
"It is not just like a tornado, only bigger," state Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said. "We're definitely aware of some of
the shortfalls that every state faces."
One big concern for authorities in Tennessee is the likelihood that Memphis, a city of about 670,000 people, might not be able to get water to its
citizens. Heidt said the state is working with the local utility to beef up the water supply.
"If their distribution system is broken apart by the earthquake, which we expect to be the case, they still might be able to generate potable
water," he said, leaving only the problem of distributing it.
Southern Illinois is likely to be heavily affected by the big quake assumed by the study. The state Emergency Management Agency is determining the
gaps between what local jurisdictions are prepared for and what they should be ready for, said Phillip Anello, who coordinates the agency's
"There's a lot of things that have already been identified and have been worked on from a state level to help with those gaps," he said, noting
work to strengthen search and rescue teams.
Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the state agency, added that federal efforts to beef up homeland security in recent years also have placed
communications equipment and other infrastructure in states like Illinois.