New Madrid fault line could cause devastation

By Andy Seifert

The New Madrid fault line doesn’t have the notoriety of the San Andreas in California, but it could cause billions of dollars in damage to a region not known for its seismic activity.

This was the warning presented by Amr Elnashai and Jerome Hajjar, director and deputy director, respectively, of the Mid-America Earthquake Center located in the Newman Civil Engineering Lab, as they appeared Sunday night on “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” a new series on the Weather Channel.

The show features a new natural phenomenon each night that has the potential for severe damage to a segment of America. The series has already taped shows that focus on a Category 3 hurricane hitting New York City or an F5 tornado in the middle of downtown Dallas.

But on Sunday night, Elnashai and Hajjar explained the potentially devastating effects of a massive earthquake on the New Madrid fault line, something that is estimated to happen every 400 or 500 years.

“If such an event happens, and it really is when, as opposed to if, the effects would be an absolute disaster at a magnitude we have never seen,” Elnashai said.

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Memphis and St. Louis would be the first major cities to feel the earthquake, and they would sustain the most damage. Elnashai estimated the total cost of damage to the region would be $200 billion, and that 50-60 percent of houses in Memphis would be damaged.

“It would look like an area hit by nuclear explosion,” Elnashai said on the show.

He also said Champaign would feel the earthquake, and direct damage to the city would be minimal, but Champaign would be affected in a multitude of other ways.

“Champaign would feel it very strongly, but it is not in imminent danger,” Elnashai said. “However, the economies being closely linked, the effects would be felt almost everywhere.”

He said he believes food supply would be weakened, power would be offline for some time and transportation would be difficult with major airports down.

An earthquake in the region could even be felt as far as Washington D.C. and New York City, and depending on how strong the earthquake is, high-rise buildings in Chicago could be damaged.

“If there was an eight (magnitude earthquake) on the New Madrid fault, there would maybe be partial collapses, maybe extremely heavy damage,” Elnashai said about Chicago. “The top of (a high-rise) building would be moving by one to one-and-a-half meters each way.”

At the Mid-American Earthquake Center, researchers are working to reduce the potential damage of such an earthquake through software designed to find vulnerable regions and to estimate how many causalities or how much economic loss would result if an earthquake hit.

The software that allows this is called “MAEVis.” Bill Spencer, a structural engineering professor that works with the Mid-America Earthquake Center, said MAEVis “takes all of the research efforts of the various professors and research and combines them in a software package that can be used to more effectively determine the impact of earthquakes on communities and regions.”

Hajjar said MAEVis could have great impact on helping to choose what needs the attention of local government or private businesses.

“What we do is take all of this information, and we’re able to run cost-benefit scenarios with the main objective to help county governments, private businesses, school boards, etc., to prioritize how to use limited resources,” Hajjar said. “Our mission is to upgrade the technical capabilities of anybody who is doing loss assessment and risk management and so on.”