The last time the New Madrid fault really shook, Missouri wasn’t a state yet. It wasn’t even a territory. President James Madison was in the White House.
And he thought someone was trying to break in.
“When we had this event in 1811, it was strong enough to make the Mississippi River run backwards,” says Jackson County Emergency Manager Mike Curry. “It rang church bells in Boston, Massachusetts.”
The New Madrid Seismic Zone – a fault line running through Missouri’s bootheel – is overdue for a big earthquake. Historically, there’s been one every 200 years. Curry says with certainty another will happen before 2040.
A magnitude 7.0 earthquake could destroy everything in eastern Missouri.
“An earthquake in the center part of the state is much more violent and much more potential energy released than the same number in California,” says Curry, who when – not if – it happens will be in charge of sheltering thousands of evacuees from St. Louis in Jackson County.
On Wednesday, Curry oversaw a multistate emergency preparedness drill that included the Missouri Department of Public Safety and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
At Crown Pointe Church in Lee’s Summit, participating agencies helped process volunteers pretending to be evacuees from St. Louis. A nurse asked a woman with an infant a series of questions to assess her health needs.
Was she sick? Was the baby sick? Did she need an EpiPen, or perhaps diabetes maintenance medicines? No, no, no. The woman was sent to the next station.
Curry says he hopes Wednesday’s drill will help participants develop the “muscle memory” they’ll need someday in an actual emergency. FEMA is also testing out new wristbands that could help reunite people, pets and luggage.
“Emergency managers are really well-trained on evacuation out,” Curry says. “Receiving evacuees in is a new ballgame.”
A major earthquake could displace 300,000 people. Most of them would head here.
“They cannot cross over the rivers because the bridges will be inoperable,” Curry says. “They can’t go east. They can’t go to Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee.”
Though an earthquake in Southeastern Missouri has the potential to shake Kansas City, the metro would likely be spared significant damage. Still, Curry says people should prepare for major supply lines to be cut off. He expects Interstate 70 will closed, with Highways 50 and 65 bearing the brunt of evacuee traffic.
“I’m not a preppy. I’m not one of those guys that lives in the wilderness,” he says. “But how do you get gasoline? How do you get gas and bread?”
Curry recommends all families put up enough provisions and water – a gallon per person per day – for two weeks. If it sounds like overkill, Curry says, then just consider the recent flooding in Louisiana.
No one expected that to happen, either.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.