The Earth Staggers

Long ago, years before they would marry, make two children, raise them and eventually divorce, my parents shared a bizarre experience.

On a Sunday morning in the early 1960s, they were at the same church service. Suddenly, everything began to move.

Dad first saw something amiss with the ceiling fans.

“They were dancing!” he told me recently.

Mom noticed something else. “The pastor we had at the time was one of these great intellectuals,” she said. “He had just finished a great line, something like ‘God shall prevail!’, and all of the sudden we heard this rumble.”

“[The church] was rolling,” she continued. “You grabbed on to the pew in front of you…but it was going forward, and the pew you were sitting on was going backward!”

Dad echoed her recollection. “I put my hands on the pew in front of me, but it was moving in a different direction than me.”

No one could deny what was happening: they were having an earthquake.

But my parents did not live in California, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest or any part of the planet known for earthquakes.

They lived in northeastern Arkansas, in the city where my mother and grandmother had been born. Years later, my sister and I would be born here – a place where low-lying flood plains, bursting with cotton and rice, were punctuated by forested ridges and small towns sporting smart main streets of low two-story brick buildings.

This region is the cradle of our family, our culture and our identity. But on that Sunday, the cradle rocked.

It was not the first time, and it will not be the last. Earthquakes have rumbled through this thick slice of Middle America for millennia. They still bear the scars of the last major tremors, which roared through northeastern Arkansas and the Missouri bootheel just over 200 years ago.

Why, Jordan, did you turn back?

On December 16, 1811, the massive bell of Saint Phillip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina rang for about ten seconds.

The problem was, it was the middle of the night, and nobody was ringing it.

Some 700 miles west, near the same spot where my parents would sit in church 150 years later, an ancient and massive fault deep in the Earth’s crust had shifted violently without warning. But on that night in 1811, the Earth itself rang like a bell. People felt the shaking half a continent away.

An engraving depicting damage from the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes from Henry Howe's Historical Collections of the Great West (Cincinnati, 1854, p.239). Image provided courtesy of Martitia Tuttle.

An engraving depicting damage from the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes from Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of the Great West (Cincinnati, 1854, p.239).
Image provided courtesy of Martitia Tuttle.

The quake was the first of three massive tremors that brought an arc of Mississippi River floodplains from Memphis to St. Louis to its knees. In addition to the shock that shook the bell of Saint Phillip’s in Charleston, quakes on January 23, 1812 and February 7, 1812 devastated this region. All three earthquakes were between magnitude 7 and 8. The shaking collapsed an unknown number of homes, leveled forests and set off landslides and soil liquefaction. They also triggered sand blows, eruptions of liquefied sand, across northeastern Arkansas and the Missouri bootheel. Many are still visible today.

Sandblows (lighter circles) from past seismic activity still dot fields near New Madrid, Missouri. Image provided courtesy of David Rogers and David Stewart.

Sand blows (lighter circles) from past seismic activity still dot fields near New Madrid, Missouri.
Image provided courtesy of David Rogers and David Stewart.

The February 1812 quake thrust up an earthen dam that blocked the Mississippi River for up to a week near Memphis, causing the river to flow backwards until it broke through the blockage. To the north, this same quake flattened the small river town of New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), in what is today Missouri. The territorial government in St. Louis was completely unprepared to provide relief services, let alone properly count the number of casualties. Though frankly, the locals did not appear to expect much help.

“It was a different time,” said Nathan Moran with the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis. “People just left, rather than rebuild. There was so much land.”

It was barely 10 years after the Louisiana Purchase had expanded the United States border westward across the Mississippi River. St. Louis was the region’s only major city, and about 50 people lived in Memphis. The city of my birth did not exist yet.

Even though the affected region was sparsely populated, the 1811-1812 earthquakes made national headlines, with over 2,000 articles in newspapers. But, most of the memory and hype of these disasters faded thanks to a mixture of conflict and complacency.

The War of 1812 quickly consumed the nation’s attention. Any memory of the 1811 and 1812 disasters among Native American tribes in the southeastern United States was quickly eclipsed by an even greater catastrophe that followed the war: they were expelled from their lands and forced westward.

For settlers who remained in the earthquake zone, frequent aftershocks were simply a part of life up through the 1820s.

“They became as blasé about earthquakes as Californians are today,” said Moran.

Local memory of the horrific 1811-1812 quakes faded as new settlers poured into the region. The Civil War accelerated this trend, as Union armies burned public records across swathes of the rebellious Confederacy.

In less than a century, the New Madrid earthquakes passed into myth.

God is Our Refuge and Our Strength

It was not until the 20th century that scientists could explain why such powerful tremors occurred in the middle of a tectonic plate, which are usually seismically peaceful places.

Billions of years ago, North America’s massive tectonic plate attempted to split in two. A rift formed in the crust beneath southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, which would have formed the border between the two new tectonic plates. But, North America never finished this split. The plate remained whole, and still is today. The only remnants today of this failed separation are the large subterranean scars running from Memphis to Saint Louis.

These scars – or faults – are sections of crust that never fully healed, creating what geologists now call the New Madrid seismic zone. They have evidence that catastrophic shaking has plagued the New Madrid seismic zone for thousands years, and possibly longer.

Earthquakes in and around the New Madrid seismic zone from 1974 to 2011.  Most of the 6,000 earthquakes on this map were too low in magnitude for humans to feel. Image provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Earthquakes in and around the New Madrid seismic zone from 1974 to 2011. Most of the 6,000 earthquakes on this map were too low in magnitude for humans to feel.
Image provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The older earthquake record is difficult to divine, prompting speculation that the New Madrid seismic zone has only awoken over the past several millennia. If so, no one knows for sure why it has been more active in recent times. Some theorize that the ground, slowly rebounding from the weight of ice sheets during the last ice age, reactivated the faults like an old war wound. Others say a hidden volcano passing beneath North America is to blame.

Regardless, the New Madrid seismic zone is active, with a roughly 25 percent chance that a magnitude-6 earthquake could strike the region within the next 50 years.

God Shall Prevail

There is evidence that this message has sunk in a the local level over the past four decades. But, it has not translated into the types of earthquake policies that are common along the West Coast.

“Many areas still do not have formal building codes for earthquakes,” said Robert Williams, the central and eastern U.S. regional coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program. “You have many towns and cities with very hazardous one to two story buildings of unreinforced masonry.”

My great-grandfather ran a clothing store in one of those buildings. It is now a yoga studio.

“A lot of people are almost fatalistic about it,” said Williams. “’If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.’

Moran echoed this sentiment, and placed it within the context of another natural hazard common to this part of the country. “The faint memory of an earthquake versus the recent, real memory of a tornado? You know which one wins.”

Tornadoes are the defining hazard of this region. Most homes, schools and businesses have their own tornado shelters. My earliest memories include lessons from parents and grandparents about what to do when we hear the sirens. But earthquakes require radically different attitudes to public safety, engineering, education and government regulation. These changes have been slow to come to the New Madrid seismic zone, if at all.

“There’s a lot of earthquake fatigue,” said Katie Belknap, state earthquake program manager with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. “There’s this sleeping giant beneath us… but one of the most frequent calls we get is, ‘Should I keep my earthquake insurance?’

Thanks to outreach efforts stemming from the 1970s, many residents know that the Big One is coming. But, culturally the region is still coming to terms with this hazard.

“You get advanced warning for tornadoes, and you know active steps you can take to deal with your personal safety,” my dad said. “We never got that for earthquakes.”

Moran noted that today schools across the New Madrid seismic zone teach their students about the region’s unique earthquake hazards and practical steps for disaster preparedness. Unlike my dad and I, these students are growing up with side-by-side knowledge of tornadoes and earthquakes. As adults, they may elevate earthquake preparedness to the same status that tornadoes have had for generations, and implement the strict building codes and comprehensive insurance policies that will fortify this land for generations to come.

For now, many residents carry on with life as they have over the past century.

If a tornado siren went off during a church service, I would know what to do.

But if the pew in front of me began to sway, I would be as clueless as my parents were – 50 years ago.

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