avatar
Earthquake Rattled Skyscrapers in Chicago


"[A] 5.2 magnitude earthquake rattled skyscrapers in Chicago’s Loop and homes in Cincinnati… At least 21 states felt the initial quake just before 4:37 a.m. [on Friday April 18, 2008], centered six miles from West Salem, Ill., and 66 miles from Evansville, Ind". [The Associated Press, updated 5:37 p.m. ET April 18, 2008].

Four days before the above quake [on April 14, 2008] I started "Chapter 3" of a book that I am writing. Here is a very brief summary of the chapter:

"No place on earth is guaranteed to sit still and stay still for ever. If one is going to live in a dynamic planet, best to pick a place that has had the sense to prepare itself". The words belong to the seismologist Susan Elizabeth Hough in her book "The Richter Scale". [Princeton University Press, 2007, page 274; also, my ZNet Commentary "A Famous [But Unknown] Scientist", of March 11, 2008]

Ordinary people in the US have a vague idea about the "big one" [that is: a big earthquake] which will hit California sometime in the future. Seismologists have a rather concrete idea that a "big one" will hit the Mississippi Valley very far into the future; probably after a few hundred years. This latter "big one" is known as the "New Madrid Earthquake".

There is one more area in the US that is likely to be hit by a very big quake (if not an extremely big one), but is not talked about as this area is not densely populated, is a climatologically inhospitable place, etc. The place is Alaska. [Alaska is taken into account only when some politicians build million dollar bridges to "nowhere", for pork.]

In this chapter we shall concern ourselves only with the New Madrid Earthquake. The California one has been discussed for decades and is very often in the news. But first we have to describe a very important [and rather strange] phenomenon: "liquefaction".

Liquefaction is the phenomenon of a soil turning into a liquid mostly during an earthquake. "This can be demonstrated by filling a vessel with very loose saturated sand and placing a weight on the surface of the sand. If a glass rod is pushed rapidly into the sand, the weight sinks as if the sand were a liquid. A gentle blow in the side of the vessel produces the same effect". ["Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice", Karl Terzaghi and Ralph B. Peck, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1948, page 101]. In our case the "gentle blow" is the earthquake, especially the New Madrid earthquake.

"A series of devastating earthquakes shook America’s heartland during the winter of 1811-1812. Among the strongest ever recorded in North America, the quakes were focused in the central Mississippi Valley. The town nearest to the epicenters was New Madrid…, on the Mississippi River just north of what today is called the ‘Bootheel’ of Missouri… The first major earthquake was on December 16, 1811, the second on January 23, 1812, and the third on February 7". [Jelle Zeiling de Boer & Donald Theodore Sanders, "Earthquakes in Human History", Princeton University Press, 2005, page 108]. The third one, on February 7, was the biggest and was known as the "hard" shock. "The earthquakes… were a national event. Over a period of months shocks were felt in the southeast, in the middle seaboard states, in New England, in Detroit, in Canada’s Province of Quebec, far up the Missouri River, and in New Orleans." ["The New Madrid Earthquakes", James Lal Penick, Jr., Revised Edition, University of Missouri Press, 1981, page 6]. "At Cincinnati a pendulum hanged in a front window ‘never ceased to vibrate in nearly five months’ ". [Penick, p. 8].

The sources for the information on the New Madrid quakes were mostly the newspapers at the time of the events and the testimony or texts of eyewitnesses. New Madrid [locally pronounced as Ma'.drid] was the "creation" of Col. George Morgan, a man adept in switching his allegiance from Spain to the US and vice versa. He named the town New Madrid to please the king of Spain. It seems that Morgan was not that bad after all. "He liked trees, Indians, and wild animals". [Penick, p. 24]. One visitor, in 1797, "remarked that the town’s inhabitants included several ‘amiable and genteel families’ with the ‘worthless and despicable part of society’ well represented". [Penick, p. 28]. At the time of the quakes the inhabitants of the town were around a few hundred "souls".

About six weeks after the "hard" quake of February 7 in New Madrid, on March 26 1812 (a Holy Thursday), a quake, similar to the New Madrid one, hit the cities of Caracas and La Guaira in Venezuela. Twenty thousand people were killed. Many of them while celebrating the "Lord" in churches. And to think that Chavez was not born yet, so that the "Lord" could justify the carnage. The 1964 monstrous 9.2 Richter quake in Alaska happened on a "Good Friday. On November 1, 1755, an "All Saint’s Day", a quake destroyed the city of Lisbon in Portugal with 60,000 dead. After the New Madrid quake the number of the Christian "faithful" increased substantially in the hit states. However, it decreased after a couple of years. Hence the expression "earth-quake Christians" that was coined at the time. Yet, the "Almighty" had ample reason to destroy New Madrid. On "December 15, just before the [New Madrid] quake begun, Lilburne [and Isham] Lewis [two] nephew[s] of Thomas Jefferson… made terrified slaves watch as he took an ax and killed a recaptured runaway as an object lesson". [de Boer-Sanders, p. 129-30]. Then one of the slaves "was handed the ax and told to dismember the corpse". [Penick, p. 101]. Of course it was not the "Lord" that killed all these people in Caracas, Lisbon, etc, but the masonry structure of the churches.

Richter, of the "Richter scale", was born in 1900. So there is no Richter [R] number for the magnitude of the New Madrid quakes. Lately, researchers, have tried to give an estimate of the Richter numbers of the three quakes. Geologists A.C. Johnson and E.S. Schweig of the University of Memphis in 1996 have come up with 8.1R for the first, 7.8 R for the second, and 8.0 R for the third [the "hard" one]. O. W. Nuttli a seismologist of St. Louis University in 1981 gave an estimate of 8.6 R for the first, 8.4 for the second, and 8.7 for the third. Seismologist and author S. E. Hough, in 2007, writes: "[S][S]cientists’ estimates of the largest New Madrid quakes has bounced from 7.3 to 8 3/4 to 8.1 and back to 7.4… Some sources still claim that the largest New Madrid earthquake, on February 7, 1812, was the largest tremblor to ever strike the contiguous United States. Most seismologists-including the author-take exception with this claim…" [Hough, p. 130].

[Note: The Richters of a quake could be a useful tool for comparison between quakes, for informing the population and so on, but its relevance is merely encyclopedic.

What is of life-and-death importance is the engineering that goes in the buildings, bridges, etc, that people live and work in, or use.]

The New Madrid Earthquake was a mystery up to very recently. Quakes happen at the edges of continents not in their middle. In the late 70s the people that promoted nuclear plants realized that they had to be careful where they put them in relation to quakes. So, money was allotted for research and it was revealed that deep in the Mississippi Valley there are old faults that cause the quakes.

Sometimes the "Goddess" of history is kind to the human race. John Bradbury was a Scottish  naturalist. It so happened that this scientist was on a boat on the Mississippi River the night of the first New Madrid quake, of December 16. His presence at the event furnishes very valuable information. His testimony: "The sight of the river in the morning’s first light did little to reduce the apprehension of the boatmen. Its surface was covered with foam". [Penick, p. 5].

[Parenthesis: On October 31, 1966 an earthquake hit Lake Amvrakia in western Greece. The bottom of the lake supported a 20 feet high embankment for the national road that crossed the lake. During the quake, the embankment disappeared in the bottom of the lake. Fortunately it was late at night and there were only two cars on the road , a truck and a Volkswagen beetle. Only the truck driver was injured, but not very seriously. Next day a group of about 16 state and professional civil engineers visited the site. I was one of them. The first thing I noticed was foam on the surface of the lake. This indicated to me that the embankment disappeared because of liquefaction of the soil at the bottom of the lake. None of the other engineers could explain the phenomenon. I take this chance to thank my teachers at the University of Illinois, in 1958, for imparting to me the knowledge that helped me understand one of the most destructive aspects of earthquakes.]

I think that the past New Madrid Earthquake (and the future one) was (and will be) a vast theatre of liquefaction. "A number of low, sandy islands, previously chartered in the river, disappeared during the [New Madrid] earthquakes, the sand presumably liquefied by the tremors". [de Boer-Sanders, p.125]. The descriptions of eyewitnesses Louis Bringier and James McBride confirm this conclusion for the 1911-1912 quakes. Another significant aspect of these quakes was the extensive sinking of the earth surface, partly due to liquefaction. Reelfoot Lake, in western Tennessee, was created by such a sinking during the new Madrid Earthquake.

Of course, the insistence on the factor of liquefaction does not mean that the problem of structural damage of buildings, bridges, etc is ignored. However, for example, a bridge could successfully survive an earthquake, structurally, but "disappear" if the soil that it rests on liquefies.

Is a future quake of the New Madrid type probable? For most researchers the answer is: Yes. The claim that because there are no historical data for a quake at a place, that place is not quake prone is incorrect. As a civil engineer I was trained in the early fifties to accept that Athens is not prone to earthquakes, because there were no history of quakes in Athens. Since then there were two bad quakes and I feel that more are coming. Besides, I think that there is a history of quakes in Athens. The three important temples in Athens are the Thesion, the Parthenon, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The height of the columns of the three temples are respectively: 5.85 ; 10.43 ; and 17.25 meters. The height of 17.25 of the columns of the Zeus temple classify them as the "skyscrapers" of the era. This temple was never finished. The most probable reason might be an Athenian quake.

Can one accept the estimate that a New Madrid type of quake happens every 600 years? Therefore, have the inhabitants of the area nothing to worry about for the next four centuries? This kind of estimates are irrelevant. Reason dictates that the population of the Mississippi Valley should start thinking seriously about the socio-engineering solution to the problem. A pareconish approach to the problem by the entire affected population seems to be the only solution available. This population is estimated at 12 million humans. In 1982, Bryce Walker of Time-Life Books wrote: "An earthquake there [in New Madrid] would endanger some 12 million people from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Evansville, Indiana, with property damage running to $ 50 billion [of '82] dollars or more". "Twelve million people now reside in the area that suffered the greatest damage during the 1911-12 shocks. There is no question that the onset of another series of equal magnitude would have devastating consequences". [Penick, p. xi]. "There can be no question that another earthquake, or series of quakes, of the order of magnitude of those in 1811 and 1812 would be truly catastrophic in mid-America… Another major earthquake could occur in this unstable region at any time. The potential for death and devastation is mind-boggling". [de Boer-Sanders, p. 138]

Now suppose that the "Almighty" chooses to send the next New Madrid quake in a winter night, as he usually does. Who is going to shelter, feed, etc, 12 million people? Who is going to control not the destitute looters, but the Cheny type of criminals who took advantage of the misery of the New Madrid Earthquake to make a "killing" so that the term New Madrid Claim [for financial help by the state] by 1920 had became a synonym for fraud?

If the next New Madrid quake is inevitable, then the chaos that will spread all over the US is inevitable. In choosing a title for the book, that I am preparing, I tend to lean toward the title: "The Inevitable Fall of the US". The cause for the "Fall" could be a quake of  8 Richter in New Madrid.

Leave a comment