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For much of Arkansas, earthquake threat looms large

If an earthquake happened on the New Madrid Fault, it would be one of the worst disasters in American History.
LA Johnson
Arkansas officials are preparing for a possibly catastrophic earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The New Madrid Fault Line sits along the border of Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. It's 120 miles long and ends in northeast Arkansas.

If an earthquake were to happen along the fault, it would be one of the biggest disasters in recent American history.

“I hate to put it this way,” said Lori Arnold-Ellis, executive director of the American Red Cross serving Greater Arkansas. “It is so morbid, but it really would feel like a disaster movie.”

Arnold-Ellis has spent years helping people in the state recover from disasters, and thinks a lot about this potential earthquake.

“We’re looking at fatalities and injuries of over 15,000 people,” she said.

The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management says there is a 25% to 40% chance of a large earthquake happening over the next half-century. The chances the quake would be catastrophic, ranging in magnitude from 7 to the maximum 9, is much lower at 10%.

Martha Kopper is a geologist with the Arkansas Geological Survey who specializes in earthquakes. She says the quake will happen on the fault eventually, just maybe not in our lifetime.

“An earthquake is the movement of rock strata along a fault, and a lot of time earthquakes concur along tectonic plates," she said.

In 1811, the New Madrid fault saw three large earthquakes. There aren’t a lot of records from that time, but Kopper says the shaking was so bad the ground turned to quicksand and created the sunken plains of the Missouri Basin.

“There were stories of the Mississippi River running backward,” she said.

Kopper says there's nothing anyone can do to predict an earthquake, and unfortunately, nothing can be done to stop it.

One day, the ground will start shaking. If this happens, Arnold-Ellis says you should drop, cover yourself and hold on.

“There’s not time to try and run outside,” she said. “And running outside isn't always the best thing. If it happened right now, I would try to hide underneath my desk and I would hold on to the legs of the desk."

Arnold-Ellis says to avoid trying to run outside. Even if you're in a high-rise building or upstairs, she says hiding under something is the safest thing.When the ground is shaking, it's hard, if not impossible, to move.

Falling objects represent the biggest danger during an earthquake. So, if you're in a wheelchair and can't get to the ground, Arnold-Ellis says to put your hands behind your head.

Arnold-Ellis says the first 48 hours after the earthquake would be like nothing the Red Cross serving Greater Arkansas has seen before.

“What we know is that there is going to be hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced, should this happen,” she said.

In the days after the earthquake, Phone lines would be down, so no one would be able to send alerts or communicate emergency information. Many roads and railways would have collapsed, making it harder to get medical supplies. Hundreds of thousands of Arkansans would be without running water or electricity. And the Red Cross estimates that hundreds of thousands of buildings will have collapsed.

People with chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes would be faced with the life-threatening inability to access medicine. The Red Cross estimates that there would be 3,500 fatalities in Arkansas.

Conditions would be worse in the northeastern corner of the state, but central Arkansas would be hard hit also.

Geologist Martha Kopper thinks a lot about underground storage tanks filled with petroleum that gas stations bury underground. If seismic waves moved through the ground, the chemicals could come to the surface.

“Gas lines can rupture, cause fires,” she said.

This could destroy acres of farmland. And when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake happened in San Francisco in 1906, it also shattered the waterlines, meaning firefighters couldn’t extinguish the flames.

The Red Cross has a full hour-by-hour plan for the disaster, with dozens of hourly goals.

“Hour 0: ensure the safety of the workforce, and complete an initial incident report. Hour 4: deploy staff to answer phones and triage evacuees. Hour 12: provide emergency communications through Arkansas State Police,” the plan reads.

The actual earthquake may be as brief as three to five minutes, but Lori Arnold-Ellis says there could be mini earthquakes that follow.

“There are almost always aftershocks,” she said. “While the actual event itself may only last for a couple of minutes, it could happen again the next day. It could happen again in a few minutes. You just don't know.”

She says in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, you see some of the best of humanity, an outpouring of support and generosity from those who weren’t injured.

“It's the people who have been affected,” she said. “Their first few weeks there's a lot of gratitude and a lot of thankfulness for the people that want to help, but as their reality becomes more apparent to them, and they begin to realize, 'I don’t have a house to go home to. I don't have anything. The resources people have been giving me are not enough.' That’s when that devastation starts to really kick in.”

But around this time, Arnold-Ellis says, people begin to experience “compassion fatigue.” They stop being interested in helping and go back to their lives.

Arkansas is not the only state with dangerous fault lines. The West Coast has a much higher chance of experiencing a disastrous earthquake. The United States Geological Survey says, in the next 30 years, there is a 72% chance of a large earthquake in San Francisco and a 60% chance of one in Los Angeles.

There are things you can do to prepare for an earthquake, like buying earthquake insurance and stocking an emergency supply of food, medication and water. Some people bolt down their furniture, so it doesn't go flying if the ground starts to shake.

But there isn't much else you can do, besides hope it doesn't happen.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.