The first jolt occurred at 2: 00 a.m. on Dec. 16, waking most people from a sound sleep. This initial shockwave had an approximate magnitude of 7.9, followed by a 7.4-magnitude aftershock. Two more earthquakes, each greater than 7.0, struck the following year.
No, this was not California. These events took place in Arkansas and Missouri in 1811 and 1812. Although the quakes were among the most devastating ever felt on the continent, they caused only slight damage to man-made structures since the area was sparsely populated at the time.
Today, it would be a very different story. The area along what's known as the New Madrid fault line remains an active seismic zone, producing more than 4,000 minor earthquakes since 1974. What would happen if a quake comparable to those of 1811-12 occurred again? According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), we could see the highest economic loss due to a natural disaster that America has ever experienced.
Consider that the 1811 quake could be felt over 50,000 square miles. A similar quake could threaten parts of eight states and the cities of St. Louis; Memphis, Tenn.; and Little Rock, Ark. In terms of logistics infrastructure, the FedEx hub in Memphis and Walmart complex in Bentonville, Ark., are just two of the key distribution points whose operations could be severely disrupted.
That's why in early June, FEMA held a weeklong exercise to test disaster preparedness in the region. It simulated a 7.7 earthquake with an epicenter 26 miles southeast of Jonesboro, Ark., to assess what would happen if, for instance, all of the bridges across the Mississippi became unusable or if water, power, and communications networks were crippled and shipments of relief supplies blocked by damaged roads.
My good friend Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), participated in the exercise. Acting in her normal role of coordinating logistics during disasters, Fulton led a team that included reps from major carriers, national retailers, wholesale grocers, and others who play a part in disaster recovery.
"We want to make sure that the resources that all of these parties can bring to bear are available," she says. "Getting the commercial supply chain restarted after a major disaster is the best way to get materials and relief to the people who need it."
It will take awhile to analyze the results of the exercise, which Fulton says likely produced more questions than answers. I just think it's good that questions are being asked now, rather than later.