Two hundred years ago on Feb. 7, 1812, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rattled the Midwest, marking the largest quake in U.S. recorded history.
The town of New Madrid, Mo., at the earthquake’s epicenter, was destroyed, and portions of the Mississippi River appeared to flow backward because of the quake.
Now, on the 200th anniversary, educators and activists are spreading awareness of earthquakes, natural disasters they said are often overlooked in the Midwest.
Brian Blake, earthquake program coordinator at the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium, is one of the leaders of the “Great Central U.S. Shakeout,” which is taking place today around the Midwest.
Currently, Indiana is leading the way in participation with 500,000 participants taking part. More than 2 million people are participating in total.
“Last year was our first year doing it, and it grew out of a program that they started in California in 2008,” Blake said. “Basically, the whole idea behind it is to build public awareness about earthquakes and to increase knowledge of what to do during earthquakes.”
Schools and independent groups have coordinated public events in which participants will take time to “drop, cover and hold on.” This is the motto for the event, as these are the steps to take in the case of an actual earthquake.
“Drop to the ground basically, before the earthquake drops you, and then take cover under a sturdy table if you can, and then hold on until the shaking stops,” Blake said.
One common misconception, Blake said, is that during an earthquake it’s best to stand in a doorway or to immediately try and get outside.
“If you try and run in a big earthquake, the ground can move up and down and side to side, and it can do it simultaneously,” Blake said. “So if you’re running, there might not be ground there after a couple steps.”
Blake said the most important thing is to protect your head and neck during a quake. But before a quake happens, he said everyone should take the time to secure heavy furniture or objects in his or her home.
“The best time to prepare is before it happens,” Blake said. “Some easy things people can do are moving bookshelves away from your bed, moving heavy objects from higher shelves to lower shelves. Things like that can go a long way from preventing injuries and damages.”
Michael Hamburger, an IU professor and leader of the IU PEPP Earthquake Science Institute, said preparations like this could prove important because earthquakes are fairly common in southern Indiana.
“A 5-magnitude earthquake occurs every five, 15, 20 years in our area,” Hamburger said. “Magnitude 6 earthquakes, which are potentially significantly destructive ... occur every 100 years.”
Hamburger said if another big quake occurred on the New Madrid zone in Missouri, the effects would be felt in Bloomington.
“It would definitely be felt, and its effects would depend quite strongly on where it was located,” he said.
The quakes in this region remain a bit of a controversial mystery to scientists, Hamburger said.
The region is in the middle of a tectonic plate, where quakes occur much more rarely.
“One of the characteristics of earthquakes in the Midwest is they tend to be felt and cause much more damage over large areas,” Hamburger said.
Blake said the organizers of the Shakeout are hoping that by having this event, people will be able to practice what to do during an earthquake. That way when the next quake comes, people won’t panic.
“We want people to practice it so they know what it’s like,” Blake said. “I mean, we teach children at schools how to stop, drop and roll and what to do for tornados and stuff like that ... and it really becomes second nature to them. When it comes time for an earthquake or when an earthquake happens, we want folks to be in the same position.”
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