Whenever I talk with people about
the basis for The 7.9 Scenario, they often become very interested
and buy my book.
I have collected below many of
the usual questions I am prepared to answer. I offer them to
the readers of this webpage. Of course, someone may ask something
that is not on this list, and I might not have an answer. I will
add to this list as I gain experience.
Books by Sam Penny
The 7.9 Scenario
How To Prepare For An Earthquake
Earthquake Data and Calculations
Books by Sam Penny
101. What works have you written or have
During my working career I wrote
a number of technical and marketing papers for conferences and
magazines. Upon retirement I continued writing, doing a column
for several years in RV Companion Magazine on Internet Links
My retirement plans included
writing a disaster/thriller novel about what happens when a giant
earthquake strikes the New Madrid Fault. That germ of an idea
developed into The 7.9 Scenario, requiring a series of novels
to tell the full story.
The first book of the series,
Memphis 7.9, was published
in 2003 and became available over the Internet in September.
Signed copies are available from my website and at selected brick
and mortar bookstores.
River was published
in 2004. The Phoenix of Memphis
is scheduled in 2006.
I am also writing a non-fiction
book, The 7.9 Scenario, Analysis &
Writing, which is being serialized on this website.
I am working with others on a
screenplay and publishing excerpts and out-takes from The 7.9
Scenario as short stories and novellas as the opportunities arise.
102. What is your book Memphis 7.9 about?
Memphis 7.9, Book 1 of The
7.9 Scenario, details
what happens to the Mississippi River valley when a 7.9 magnitude
earthquake strikes the New Madrid Fault 45 miles northwest of
In the story Chris Nelson's computer
model predicts a strong temblor, but his University advisor opposes
making public predictions. JQ McCrombie disbelieves the possibility
of a major earthquake, and using bribes and low quality construction,
makes the business of strengthening highway bridges for earthquake
safety highly profitable. Others in and around Memphis live with
varying degrees of disregard, complacency, and ignorance of the
dangers of the fault just across the river. Only a few worry
about preparations for a disaster.
On a pleasant Saturday morning
in May, beginning at 9:34:09, the temblor begins. In twenty-three
and a half seconds the earth fractures for a distance 70 miles
along the fault from Lepanto, Arkansas to Ridgely, Tennessee,
passing beneath the Mississippi River near Caruthersville, Missouri.
Over the next thirteen minutes
earthwaves from the magnitude 7.9 temblor destroy Memphis and
the upper Mississippi River Delta then spread out to wreck havoc
across the eastern United States. Ninety-one million people in
twenty-two states feel the earth shake, tens of thousands are
killed, hundreds of thousands injured, millions left homeless.
The story of what happens is
told through the eyes of those who feel the earth shake. Some
perish, some survive, all face an entirely new future. Memphis
is a lost city, cut off from the outside world. Six hours after
the big shake the survivors begin to realize the full impact
of the catastrophe. Now what?
103. What is the basis for The 7.9 Scenario
I became interested in earthquakes
and faults when I moved to California in 1960 and found I worked
300 yards away from the Hayward Fault at the University of California
I began serious research into
the damage inflicted by earthquakes after the Loma Prieta Earthquake
in 1987, using the Internet as my primary resource. That research
brought home to me that even though California is famous for
its earthquakes, the most dangerous fault in the United States
is the New Madrid Fault in the center of the country.
Using FEMA and USGS reports I
began an analysis of the overall effects of a giant earthquake
in that region and developed several detailed computer models
for predicted shaking and related damage and casualties for all
twenty-two states that would be affected.
When I did a scenario using the
current conditions combined with the potential hazards I found
that the results would be catastrophic, not only for the region
around the fault but across the entire United States as well.
My wife and I visited the Memphis
area several times where I studied the construction and talked
with the locals. I have followed the attempts by some authorities
in that region to raise the construction standards and awareness
of the population to the dangers just across the river from them.
They have had marginal success.
104. What about your next book, Broken
My first attempt to write my
novel resulted in an opus of 160,000 words, far too large for
the reading public. A friend suggested dividing it into two books,
and the second is called Broken River. That process also
solved the problem of how to end the book; many years will pass
before The 7.9 Scenario plays out the full impact of a great
Broken River tells the story of an excursion boat
and a towboat with twelve barges caught on the Mississippi River
near Caruthersville in the shaking.
The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
and their tributaries have become man-made structures with levees,
dams, locks, and bridges. The waterways are even more vulnerable
to destruction from the shaking of an earthquake than many of
the buildings that line the river.
The boats must pass under a fallen
Interstate highway bridge to work their way down the river to
what they hope is the safety of dry ground at Memphis. Waters
from the broken locks at Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River
add to the problems faced by the two captains as they try to
remain safe on the turbulent waters. Along they way they deal
with broken levees, fallen bluffs, and the chaos of river pirates
who have become savages in the anarchy that prevails.
Finally reaching Memphis they
find they must now cope with helping the city and staying safe
in the chaos that reigns.
105. Will there be a movie or TV series
made of your book?
Several people have expressed
interest in seeing the book made into a movie. I am working with
others on a screenplay at this time.
106. Have the books won any awards?
In March, 2004, Memphis 7.9
received Honorable Mention in the 2004 Darrell Award competition
at MidSouthCon 22 in Memphis, Tennessee. I was present to receive
the award and made many friends at the Con.
Memphis 7.9 has been entered into several other
competitions, including two relating to self-published works.
It did not win any of those awards.
Broken River is entered for the 2005 Darrell Awards
107. How big is the book Memphis 7.9?
Memphis 7.9 is a trade paperback measuring 6 by
9 inches. The body contains 248 pages. The story is 239 pages.
It was originally published by Booksurge LLC with an ISBN of
1-58898-920-8. The latest edition is published by TwoPenny Pulications
with an ISBN of 0-9755671-0-1.
108. How does someone purchase your books?
Memphis 7.9 and Broken River are available
over the Internet and at selected bookstores.
You may purchase
signed copies on this website.
You may also purchase the books
on-line at www.booksurge.com, www.amazon.com, and www.alibris.com
at various price points. You may be charged for shipping from
Bookstores and libraries receive
discounts if they order copies from www.booksurgedirect.com.
I make the best royalties from
purchases made from my website and next from booksurge.
The 7.9 Scenario
is The 7.9 Scenario?
The dictionary defines scenario
as an imagined account of possible events resulting from some
In The 7.9 Scenario the happening
is when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake strikes on the southern extension
of New Madrid Fault, fracturing the earth's crust for 70 miles
from Lepanto, Arkansas to Ridgely, Tennessee.
Events considered in the scenario
are the actual earthquake and immediate destruction that results,
the attempts to respond to those most in need, the impact on
the entire United States demographics and economy, and the tortuous
task of rebuilding the shattered areas.
202. What does it take to make a magnitude
7.9 earthquake and how big is it?
In my book Memphis 7.9 I
use fiction to provide background information on the New Madrid
Fault. The story ultimately leads into the actual temblor, describing
in detail the mechanics of how an earthquake happens.
The hypothesized magnitude 7.9
earthquake results from the creation of a 70-mile long fracture
along the New Madrid Fault, 45 miles from Memphis. Seismic waves
spread across the eastern half of the United States even as TV
goes real-time and tells of their advance.
The result of the shaking is
the massive destruction of man-made structures up and down the
Mississippi River Valley and into the Ohio River Valley. Buildings,
levees, barge locks, bridges collapse or sink into the mud. Grain
elevators burst and refineries catch fire.
Near the trace of the fracture
the damage is almost absolute and the immediate casualties extremely
high. Further away the shaking is less but still dangerous. Fatalities
can be expected in Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, New Orleans,
and Houston. The forces are enough to once again ring church
bells in Boston, over 1,000 miles away.
203. What happens to the rivers in The
In my second book, Broken
River, I tell of the impact of the shaking on the rivers
and reservoirs of the Central United States.
Bridges, dams, locks, and now
even the rivers are man-made structures. Bridges will fall, dams
will be breached, locks will be broken. Levees alongside the
rivers simply liquefy back to the mud and sand from which they
were made, leaving the waters of the rivers uncontrolled.
The Mississippi River changes
its course at Bessie. Massive flooding can be expected in Missouri
and Arkansas and in Mississippi below Memphis.
The levees in Louisiana are quite
vulnerable to the intensity of shaking a 7.9 magnitude temblor
will produce and breaches can be expected at many places. New
Orleans levees may break to flood the city and the Mississippi
River could change its course north of New Orleans where the
Achafalaya meets the Mississippi.
The river transportation system
will be destroyed. Those caught on the river must struggle to
find safety on dry but unstable land.
204. What happens to people living in
the most stricken area?
Those who are caught in the most
shaken areas must respond to a long list of immediate problems.
In areas around Memphis almost all communications and transportation
has been destroyed.
There is no water pressure and
houses and businesses burn to the ground. Sanitation facilities
are gone. Hospitals no longer operate once emergency generator
fuel is exhausted. Food is in short supply and the authorities
struggle to maintain control.
Aftershocks and lack of power
plague the rescue efforts. In my story I project a 7.4 magnitude
aftershock will rip the middle part of the seismic zone, spreading
even more destruction.
Soon people realize that little
outside help is coming to Memphis, Those who might have come
from the east or the west are totally involved in their own problems
with the earthquake and have no resources to send.
205. How can people survive after a big
The story of how the people of
Memphis struggle to survive will be told in my third book, The
Phoenix of Memphis, to be published in 2006.
The tragedies in India, Bosnia,
Turkey, and Iraq, and most recently from the tsunami in southeast
Asia, that we have witnessed on television in the last few years
give us some indication of what can be expected. This time people
of the East and West Coasts of the United States must work to
save the heart of our country. We will give thanks for help from
Initially people around Memphis
must have to learn to survive with what little they have. There
will be little their local authorities can provide. The Armed
Forces can provide some help, but the level of help needed exceeds
even their capacity to respond. In addition, all rescue efforts
are hampered by the extreme damage to the roads and bridges surrounding
the Memphis area.
A new governing order must be
worked out to keep control of the city. Martial Law is probably
inevitable. Evil, darkness, and corruption will rise up and attempt
to take advantage the miseries of the city's inhabitants. It
will require strong-willed, dedicated people to organize and
keep the region in order.
206. What will happen to Memphis in the
Estimates are that it will be
35 years before the Mississippi River Valley can recover from
a great earthquake on the New Madrid. A whole new order must
be built from scratch.
One of the first trends to develop
will be a massive migration from the area. My third book, The
Phoenix of Memphis, to be published in 2006, tells the story
of the beginnings of that migration when those unable to survive
the dog-eat-dog environment - the orphans, the old, the weak
- seek to find a way out of the destruction and to safety.
Over a third of the population
will leave the area, and among the first to go will be many of
those needed the most, the people capable of repairing the city
and the region. Ultimately the river and the city will recover,
but it will take many years requiring a whole new generation
of pioneers to return to the area and aid in the recovery.
207. What happens to the United States
in The 7.9 Scenario?
Though The 7.9 Scenario focuses
on the region around Memphis, the impact of such a happening
on the entire United States is horrendous.
One-tenth of all transported
goods in the United States flow through or near Memphis by truck,
rail, air, river barge, or pipelines. That entire traffic flow
will be ended overnight.
The Mississippi River will be
uncrossable by rail or truck from St. Louis to Vicksburg. East/west
transportation costs will double or triple.
As much as half of the oil, gas,
and coal transported by pipelines from the west to the east will
be stopped for months. Fuel shortages on the East Coast will
continue for years.
A significant portion of the
chemical plants that line the Mississippi River and its tributaries
will cease operation because of damage or lack of raw materials
like grain or fuel. The lack of their products will produce shortages
that will slow or stop other manufacturers throughout the country.
Some materials like high fructose corn syrup may become a thing
of the past.
Most people and businesses have
no earthquake insurance, but many will still have collectable
fire insurance. The toll will be sufficient that the insurance
industry will be destroyed. All primary insurers and the re-insurers,
both in the United States and around the globe will be bankrupted
by their inability to pay those claims they cannot get out of.
The United States will lose as
much as 10% of its Gross Domestic Product capability overnight.
The stock market will crash. The world markets will plummet in
sympathy. A massive worldwide depression may occur, only to be
followed by stupendous inflation. Unemployment will climb to
A catastrophe this large may
very well relegate the United States to the status of a third
208. Where did you find the data used
in your scenario?
The book entitled Earthquakes
by Bruce A. Bolt of the University of California, Berkeley, 1993,
provided my primary understanding of the earthquake process.
My primary source for projected
shaking intensities was Damages & Losses From Future New
Madrid Earthquakes by Dr. David Stewart of the Center for
Earthquake Studies at Southeast Missouri State University. Its
last printing was in 1996
I initially used the Rand-McNally
Atlas for the 1990 county census data. I recently updated my
estimates using the 2000 census from the Internet. I also found
many useful bits form different books and pamphlets from the
California Seismic Safety Commission and the USGS.
William Atkinson's 1989 book
The Next New Madrid Earthquake, A Survival Guide for the Midwest
provided a very good reference for possible results from
a major earthquake on the New Madrid.
I also searched the Internet
for interesting and informative websites about earthquakes, both
history and educational.
209. Why did you choose magnitude 7.9?
7.9 is large enough to cause
catastrophic damage to our country and low enough to be significantly
probable. Even I might live long enough to see this scenario
happen, and there are things our country can do to prepare.
There have been several books
written about stupendously large earthquakes on the New Madrid,
so large as to seem totally improbable and almost impossible
to prepare for.
The major earthquakes of the
1811 and 1812 series were all estimated to be in the 8.0 to 8.6
range. Some people feel that they may have been an anomaly and
the danger of something that large is hundreds of years in the
I initially chose a magnitude
of 7.7 to make the event even more probable but decided to use
7.9 because it showed some of the effects more strikingly and
was still in the realm of reason.
Earthquakes of lesser strength
are even more probable. Any earthquake above 7.0 will be a major
problem for the area around Memphis.
210. Why do you say such an earthquake
would destroy a significant portion of our country's Gross Domestic
If you look at the economic census
data, several things become immediately clear. Ten percent of
the TOTAL shipping tonnage of our country moves past or through
Memphis, by barges, truck, pipeline, air or rail. The main traffic
hub for Federal Express is in Memphis. All that shipping capability
will be lost.
Memphis is not the only place
where damage will impact transportation. A significant portion
of shipping from St. Louis to New Orleans to Cincinnatti to Little
Rock will no longer be possible.
Much of the coal, oil, and gas
shipped from fields in Texas, Oklahoma, and other states flows
by pipelines to the eastern United States. Many of those pipelines
will be destroyed and it may take years to rebuild them. In the
meantime, the east and south coast will experience a major power
shortage and lack of raw materials, forcing many plant closures
throughout the region.
The insurance industry will be
destroyed, entirely. The 9-11 tragedy killed less than 3,000
people and took out between 2 and 3 percent of the USA GDP. An
earthquake of this magnitude could kill 80,000 people and take
out as much as 10% of the USA GDP.
211. Why is this the worst disaster that
could strike the United States?
When you study the different
kinds of disasters that can strike our land, only a major war
or big earthquake can cause such widespread destruction.
Tornadoes destroy a few square
miles at a time and hurricanes may devastate hundreds of square
miles. But both of them usually provide enough warning time for
people to prepare.
The worst terrorist attack killed
nearly 3,000 people and destroyed buildings in a few square blocks
of New York City.
Earthquakes happen suddenly,
without warning, and the damaged area is huge, especially in
the central United States. The Northridge earthquake in California
measured a magnitude 6.8 and shattered an area of 600 square
miles. In 1895 an earthquake of the same size struck near Charleston,
Missouri and devastated 6,000 square miles. Had the area been
populated as it is now the destruction would have been immense.
And a 6.8 event is 30 times less powerful than a 7.9 event.
The damage zone where the shaking
intensity will be VI or above from a 7.9 magnitude earthquake
will be about 300,000 square miles in size in the central United
States. There will be 32,000,000 people at risk in that zone.
Estimates from The 7.9 Scenario
show that depending on the day of the week, time of day, and
degree of flooding that results, fatalities could number over
one hundred thousand, injuries over half a million, and homeless
6.5 to 10 million.
212. People say, my sister lives a thousand
miles away; why should this concern her?
While people who live at points
distant from the New Madrid Fault may not feel the shaking, they
will be involved in the rescue effort and they will feel the
This is a national problem and
actions are required at the national level.
Besides, there are faults everywhere,
some yet to be discovered. What has been described for the New
Madrid Seismic Zone can occur elsewhere, from New York to Georgia
to Texas to Montana to California. There are lessons on survival
to be learned by everyone.
213. What will a big earthquake do to
the Mississippi River?
The Mississippi and Ohio River
and their tributaries have become man-made structures. They are
confined by levees and controlled by dams, weirs and locks. Earthquakes
do the most damage to man-made structures. Therefore, the rivers
are in grave danger.
The levees are made of mud and
sand. When the ground shakes beneath them, they tend to crumble,
and if they are wet from holding back flood waters, they simply
turn to quicksand and flow away.
The dams are mostly earth-filled
structures, really just gigantic levees. They can suffer the
same fate as their smaller brethren.
The locks through which the barge
traffic flows are vulnerable because the structures on either
side of a lock can move back and forth, especially if an earthen
dam backs it up. If the ground motion is from the side, the lock
gates can be crushed until they break or spring apart, releasing
the water they hold back to flood the areas downstream.
At the massive New Madrid loop
of the Mississippi River the northbound channel at Bessie is
seperated from the southbound channel by an isthmus only half
a mile wide. There is a drop of ten feet in river elevation.
The water has flowed across that isthmus in the past. If it were
to break through at that point it would create a massive rapids
through which no river traffic could go until a new dam and locks
These possibilities are covered
in my second book, Broken River.
214. What about chemical plants along
Chemical plants built along the
rivers rest on pilings driven into the mud. Though the buildings
may be relatively stable, the ground on which they rest is not.
Most chemical plants move large
volumes of fluids around in pipes, and if those pipes are stretched
or compressed to far, they rupture, spilling their contents to
the ground. Fracture distillation columns are unstable if shaken
too much. In addition, the piping may be torn from their sides.
Storage tanks may simply burst as the liquids inside slosh from
side to side in the shaking.
Huge fires can be expected at
any chemical plant that processes combustible materials. The
smoke from these fires is hazardous and may be extremely toxic.
There will simply be no way to stop them. They will have to burn
215. What about electric power?
Power production plants will
probably remain standing under severe shaking, especially the
nuclear plants. In severe shaking some of the power generation
equipment may be thrown out of alignment. In any case, they are
all designed to shut down when there is shaking for inspection.
You can expect that grave damage
will be done to the power distribution lines and to the fuel
supplies. Damage to power lines may extend several hundred miles
out from the trace of the fracture.
In The 7.9 Scenario Memphis is
without power for several months. Emergency generators in the
city will help, but only briefly. They will soon run out of fuel.
Then there will be no power.
216. What about the transportation system?
Major bridges are most vulnerable
to extreme shaking. A portion of the Bay Bridge and the entire
elevated Cypress Structure collapsed from the Loma Prieta earthquake
in 1987, a 7.1 magnitude event over 50 miles away.
It is almost certain that the
entire Interstate Highway system anywhere near the fracture will
be severely crippled. Local streets that cross or go under a
freeway may very well be blocked as well because of fallen overpasses.
In The 7.9 Scenario I expect
that all the bridges crossing the Mississippi River from St.
Louis to Vicksburg will be destroyed or severely damaged. They
will not be repaired for many months. Some will never be replaced.
This situation creates a six hundred-mile long wall between the
western and eastern parts of our country that blocks all train
and truck traffic.
Local roads and streets will
initially be impassable because of fallen trees and power lines,
but they should be cleared within a few days. Bridges at creeks
and small rivers may remain a problem for months afterwards.
However, with fuel in very short
supply and no power to pump it out of the buried fuel tanks,
there should be little vehicle traffic on the roads around Memphis
after the first few weeks. It might be a good idea to invest
in a sturdy bicycle.
217. Will the communications system still
The initial shaking will wipe
out all but mobile communications. Telephone land-lines will
be broken, taking with them the cellphone system. Microwave towers
will be knocked out of alignment and unable to send or receive.
With the lose of power the television and radio stations will
rapidly go off the air.
The police and fire department
have mobile radio in their vehicles that will continue to operate
for a time. However, much of that is short range and assumes
the presence of a repeater station.
The Ham Radio operators have
a system to communicate over UHF and VHF over long distances
in an emergency, and once they can come up they will provide
some degree of communications. However, with the absence of electrical
power and fuel for generators, their effectiveness will degenerate.
Those people in the Memphis area
with satellite television and Internet links will be able to
communicate with the outside world, at least if they have power.
Those fortunate enough to have solar panels will become de facto
communications centers for the area.
218. What about water and sewer?
Places where the intensity of
the shaking exceeds VII will experience substantial breaks in
the underground piping carrying water and sewage anywhere there
is a slope. In Memphis the entire infrastructure can be expected
to be broken in so many places it will take months to get it
Water treatment plants will be
without power and possibly destroyed. Sewage treatment plants
will be non-operational, but that will not be a problem until
they can once again receive the affluent.
The potable water supply will
quickly become a problem. People must conserve what they have,
either in bottles, hot water tanks, toilet bowls, or swimming
pools. Eventually that water will be gone and they will have
to rely on water from the creeks and rivers. Chlorinating the
water will be vital to prevent the spread of cholera and dysentary.
The city's sewage disposal system
will be gone. Locals will have to devise ways of disposing of
their wastes, hopefully without contaminating the water supply
in the process. Unfortunately, there are a million people in
Shelby County, and there is not that much space to dispose of
219. What about gas and fuel pipelines
crossing the rivers?
Much of the gas and coal from
the west is transported to the east in pipelines. Any pipeline
that crosses the river between St. Louis and Vicksburg will probably
be destroyed, or at least made unusable for a period of time.
This lack of fuel will have significant
impact all along the east coast as fuel shortages quickly develop.
Imports from the near east will become vital.
220. Will there be cracks in the ground?
Along the trace of the fracture
there may be areas where the cracks appear in the surface of
the ground, but for the most part there will be more sand boils
than anything else. Gravity does not pull the land to the side
to open or close a crack.
Along the banks of the rivers
and creeks there will be many places where the banks break off
to slide into the water, creating cracks where the land drops
The land along the New Madrid
Fault is mostly flat except for a few significant places. The
Chickasaw Bluffs at Fort Pillow and Memphis rise above the river
to a height of 200 feet or more. To the east of the Mississippi
there are rolling, wooded hills. Major landslides can develop
along any of these steep slopes. Around the landslides it will
appear that there are cracks.
221. What happens to the farm lands in
Most of the farmland will be
left unchanged except where it is flooded by the uncontrolled
waters of the rivers.
In some places there will be
sand boils that bring water and sand up from the water table.
222. What are sand boils?
When the earth is shaken back
and forth, soils that are saturated with water, like below the
water table, may have the sand and mud particles go into suspension.
Then as the pressures of the earthwaves push on this slurry,
the mixture is forced to the surface and spews out like a geyser,
carrying a load of sand and buried flood debris from the bowels
of the earth. Generally it stinks of rotten eggs.
A large sand boil will make large
areas of farmland untillable. Remains of sand boils from the
1811 and 1812 earthquakes are still visible in the fields above
223. What is liquefaction?
When the water table is very
near to the surface, the shaken soil becomes a mixture of water
and suspended sand, more commonly known as quicksand. You get
the same effect if you jump up and down on a sand bar next to
If this happens over a large
area, structures at the surface simply sink into the quagmire.
If the sinking is uneven, the buildings will be broken in two.
224. What about aftershocks?
Aftershocks occur when more movement
is required along the fracture to relieve more stress in the
fault. Another fracture occurs, usually smaller, creating another
earthquake. It must be in the rock originally fractured to be
considered an aftershock. Otherwise, it is considered a separate
earthquake in its own right.
Aftershocks may be very small
or very large. Two aftershocks in 1811 are estimated to have
measured over 8.0 in magnitude.
Aftershocks begin immediately
after the initial fracture and may continue for days. Following
1812 the aftershocks continued with such intensity and at such
a rate that the region was not really habitable for another five
How To Prepare For An
is our government doing about this threat?
There are several government
agencies directly concerned with the threat of earthquakes along
the New Madrid Fault.
USGS supports a team of Universities
as they monitor the fault. CERI is the primary organization at
the Univeristy of Memphis that studies the seismology of the
region. The Middle America Earthquake Center (MAE) at the University
of Illinois is working on problems relating to the affects off
FEMA works with local Emergency
Management Agencies to prepare disaster plans. CUSEC (Central
United States Earthquake Consortium) is a cooperative effort
of the Emergency Management Agencies of the surrounding states.
The local police and fire departments
have contingency plans in place to handle such emergencies.
The individual communities have
people devoted to building local awareness of the problem.
302. Is there more that government agencies
should do to prepare?
One of my concerns is what I
perceive to be a lack of planning for a truly gigantic catastrophe
such as described in The 7.9 Scenario. One of the arguments for
not bothering is that it is too rare, and besides with something
that big there is nothing they can do.
There is also a reluctance to
talk about a truly major event. The preparation is focused on
events in the 6.0 to 7.0 magnitude range. There is good logic
in that, for such events are more probable. But there should
still be a dialogue about what to do if a truly large earthquake
Most importantly, there should
be a national recognition of the potential danger to the entire
United States. There are things that can be done to lessen the
loss to the country's GDP.
303. What should I do to prepare?
Take a look at my new website
Here I will be putting together more information about what individuals
But in the meantime, let me tell
you of some of the preparations I made while living in California
earthquake country, and what I am doing now.
Living atop the Calavaras Fault
I prepared a survival kit in a plastic tub and checked it regularly.
It had standard things like first aid supplies, blankets, and
flashlights. I also kept a supply of fresh water and fuel for
my Coleman stove and lantern.
In my home I anchored the bookshelves
and water heaters to the wall. Our family had a plan for getting
in touch in the event of a major event of any kind.
When my wife and I retired we
adopted a nomadic life-style living full-time in an RV so we
can get out of an area of massive destruction. I have solar panels
and keep my fresh water and fuel tanks full. I carry a wind-up
radio just in case. We practice living frugally.
I do keep a survival kit on hand,
and I keep a long-term supply of essential things like water,
fuel, and medicines on hand. We have ham radio and satellite
I work to keep abreast of what
is happening around me, be it fires, weather, traffic, seismology,
or wild animals. I look for potential problem areas and take
action if there is something I can do. The main thing is to realize
that you are your own first line of defense in the event of an
emergency. Think about it and be prepared.
is your background and expertise?
My professional experience started
in physics and engineering, focused on computing systems and
applications then migrated over the next forty years to corporate
executive. Along the way, for several years I worked with geologists
in the oil industry on projects involving rock mechanics, directional
drilling, and plate tectonics.
I graduated in 1958 in Engineering
Physics from the University of Oklahoma. In 1960 I received a
Masters Degree in Physics from the University of Illinois in
Champaign-Urbana. I retired from my position as the VP of Engineering
for SBE, Inc. in 1998.
402. How did you become interested in
earthquakes and the New Madrid Fault in particular?
Living in California, I developed
a healthy respect for seismology and began to study the cause
and effects of earthquakes, twice experiencing the adrenaline
rush from magnitude 7+ temblors. I decided to use my background
to bring to light the possibilities by writing a novel about
the New Madrid scenario.
403. What makes you an expert on earthquakes
I do not call myself an expert.
I have studied much of the available literature, printed and
on the Internet, both from other writers and from government
agencies, on this subject. I feel that I am well-informed about
the subject. My experience and background have allowed me to
better understand some of the technical details and I have attempted
to restate some of these in clear language so the lay-person
404. Have you ever been to Memphis?
I have visited the city several
time, always as a tourist. I recommend it as a place to go, especially
in May or October when the weather is most reasonable.
While in Memphis I did research
on a number of fronts, including talking to their Emergency Management
Agency people. My wife and I even met the Mayor of the City,
though we did not realize at the time just who it was.
405. Why did you write about the New
After observing Memphis and St.
Louis while on vacation in 1996, I began to research the effects
of a "great" earthquake on the New Madrid Fault along
the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee.
Applying the 1990 county census
numbers from a Wal-Mart Rand McNally Atlas to a FEMA report detailing
the expected shaking intensity on a county-by-county basis for
various size temblors, I calculated the cumulative effects across
the eastern United States. I also computed the wave energy profile
for every major metropolitan area throughout the region.
The resulting scenario left me
awe-struck: a magnitude 7.9 earthquake would produce a catastrophic
event that could kill tens of thousands, injure hundreds of thousands,
leave millions without homes, and destroy a significant portion
of the USA Gross Domestic Product. In 1996 the estimated probability
was one in five that such an event would occur in the next fifty
years, 20% that it would happen sometime between next week to
I wanted to write fiction in
retirement and decided that warning the world of this danger
would be an appropriate undertaking.
406. What websites do you have?
At this website, www.the79scenario.com,
you can find information about The 7.9 Scenario and my book publishing
I also maintain a website devoted
to our travelogue and recommendations for RVers since 1998 at
You can reach me by email. My
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
501. What causes an earthquake?
An earthquake, or more properly
a temblor, is when the earth's surface at some location is made
to shake, either a little bit or strongly or even violently.
Energy must be suddenly released
to make the earth shake. This may be an explosion of several
tons of explosive in a cavern, or a massive rockslide, or a fracture
in the earth's crust along a fault. The most common earthquakes
come from fault fractures.
The earth's crust has many faults,
mostly where different continental plates floating on the magma
and pushing or sliding past each other. Friction holds the rock
in the crust steady until the stress becomes so great the rock
breaks apart like a crack in your windshield.
The break in the rock allows
opposite sides of the fault to move past each other, releasing
energy that heats the fracture zone and sends waves of shaking
outward in all directions. As that shaking moves across the land
people feel what are called earthquakes, or temblors.
502. What is the New Madrid Seismic Zone?
The New Madrid Seismic Zone is
a seismically active area that runs northeast from near Marked
Tree, Arkansas to past Cairo, Illinois. It is a broad band about
350 miles long and 10 to 40 miles wide where the earth's crust
is prone to fracture from time to time.
About 250 fractures are recorded
in the New Madrid Seismic Zone each year. Most of these are very
small and not even noticeable to the locals. A few are strong
enough to wake people up in the middle of the night.
In 1811 and 1812 a series of
giant earthquakes wracked the region, the largest seismic events
recorded in modern history in the United States.
503. Where did the New Madrid Seismic
Zone come from?
Seismologist and geologists have
studied the New Madrid Seismic Zone for many years, mapping the
location of the fault by locating the small fractures as they
occur and studying the whole lay of the land using satellite
Current theory is that about
200 million years ago the rock started to pull apart in the crust
that is now beneath the Mississippi River Valley, forming a gigantic
crack, or rift. A similar rift to the east created what is now
the Atlantic Ocean.
But the Reelfoot Rift, as it
is now called, stopped after it had spread about 70 miles. The
volcanoes that had formed in the middle of the rift went dormant
and the valley that had been created filled in with sand and
clay that eventually became solid rock. More and more sediment
was deposited on top of that ancient rift.
The dead remains of the rift
are still there beneath the Mississippi River, but now they are
a weak spot in the crust. As the North American continental plate
gets shoved around, the Reelfoot Rift is one of the places that
is easier to break than elsewhere. Now we see lots of small fractures
on the old rift, and occasionally we feel the shaking of some
very large fractures.
504. When was the last big earthquake
on the New Madrid Fault?
Within the last twenty years
there have been several earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault
with magnitudes as high as 5.0.
In 1895 an earthquake estimated
to be of magnitude 6.8 struck on the New Madrid Fault not far
from Charleston, Missouri in the Missouri bootheel country. That
is near the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. That
is the same magnitude as the earthquake that struck Northridge,
California in 1997.
The really big earthquakes were
back in 1811 and 1812 when a series of three giant earthquakes
struck along the fault in a two-month period. Their estimated
magnitudes range from 8.2 to 8.6. There were two aftershocks
with magnitudes above 8.0. Many more aftershocks struck the region
with magnitudes up to the 7 range.
Aftershocks continued in the
area for another five years before diminishing to a level that
people were willing to accept and return to live in the region.
505. How does the New Madrid Fault compare
to the San Andraes Fault in California?
The New Madrid Seismic Zone has
three distinct regions: the southern end appears to be a slip-strike
fault much like the SanAndreas with most small temblors occurring
along a northeast line from Marked Tree to Tiptonville. North
of that section, under what is now Reelfoot Lake and running
to the northwest, is a region that appears to be a thrust fault
zone; the small temblor activity is spread out over a large region.
Coming out of the north end of that zone is a diffuse area tending
to the northeast that extends up under Cairo and beyond.
The San Andreas is a well marked
fault whose trace runs from the Salton Sea and disappears into
the Pacific Ocean at Tomales Bay north of San Francisco. That
trace marks the boundary between the North American continental
plate to the east and the Pacific plate to the west. Its path
is clearly visible throughout most of its trace.
On the other hand, the New Madrid
Fault is buried beneath the flood plains of the Mississippi River,
and its trace is hard to find. Nowhere can one find actual ruptures
of the surface from past earthquakes. It is an inter-plate fault
and not at a plate boundary. As a result, much less is understood
about the New Madrid than about the San Andraes. Geologists are
still arguing about just what is the mechanism that produces
earthquakes in the seismic zone.
Size wise, the New Madrid and
the San Andraes are similar in lengths and in their capability
to produce very large earthquakes.
506. What are the chances for a 7.9 magnitude
earthquake really happening?
In 1996 the best estimates from
the geologists and paleoseismologists were that the average time
between great earthquakes on the New Madrid was 270 years, and
that figure has been used for a number of studies and cost/benefit
analyses. Expressed as a probability, they said there was a 25%
chance of a great earthquake happening in the next fifty years.
More recently the USGS says that
there is a one in ten chance of a great earthquake between 7.5
and 8.0 magnitude occurring in the next fifty years.
Now "great" means 7.4
or higher, and a 7.9 is assumed to be less frequent that a 7.4,
so you have to make a judgement call.
More recently, seismologists
in New Mexico have questioned if the data really supports the
270 year figure and suggest the time should be somewhere between
400 and 1000 years.
I am concerned when I hear that
this possible change has then been used as an argument for changing
the cost/benefit analyses to show that earthquake mitigation
is not needed in the Memphis area.
Based upon the past history as
we know it of the New Madrid Fault, I would say that there is
a 100% probability that a magnitude 7.9 earthquake will occur
on the fault sometime in the future. I just cannot say when.
For my novel just when it happens does not matter, for what I
describe in The 7.9 Scenario is what results when that earthquake
This is like playing Russian
Roulette with either a six-chamber revolver or a twelve-chamber
revolver. The probability changes when you select a different
firearm, but the risk stays constant. If you pull up the wrong
chamber you blow your brains out.
507. What would I feel where I live from
a 7.9 magnitude earthquake?
The immediate effects you will
feel all depends on where the earthquake is and where you happen
to be at the time. Suppose a 7.9 magnitude earthquake does occur
on the southern extension of the New Madrid.
If you are within 100 miles of
the seventy-mile long fracture trace that runs from Lepanto,
Arkansas to Ridgely, Tennessee, you will experience shaking lasting
well over a minute with accelerations from 20% to 100% of gravity.
Your life will be in grave danger if you are inside a structure
of any kind.
If "here" happens to
be three hundred miles away from the fracture, you will experience
a significant amount of shaking, enough to make it difficult
to drive. It will wreck some of the buildings around you.
If "here" is five hundred
to one-thousand miles away, you will probably feel the swaying
back and forth of the earth. Some things may fall, but there
probably will not be any significant damage.
If "here" is in California,
you will know of what is happening from TV and radio, but you
will not feel anything. Seismographs around the world will be
able to measure the ringing within the earth for several hours
afterwards, but the vibrations are too small to feel.
For everyone outside the zone
of destruction the effects will be delayed, but they will happen.
A very significant portion of the economy of the United States
will have been destroyed, and the impact will be felt for years.
508. What about smaller earthquakes on
the New Madrid?
On the average 250 temblors occur
each year in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Typically 96% of them
measure less than 3.0 in magnitude and most are never felt by
anyone. However, the network of seismic sensors scattered across
the farmlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee provide scientists
with a good picture of the activity along the fault.
There average about 10 events
on the New Madrid of magnitude 3.0 or higher. Some of the recent
events have been as high as 5.0.
509. Why do you say only man-made things
are destroyed in an earthquake?
Earthquakes have shaken the Mississippi
River valley for millions of years. That shaking, along with
erosion, has flattened the land to look like a pool table except
where a river has carved out a channel or there has been some
sideways movement that raised a pressure ridge or created a depression.
When flat lands shake they simply
rock back and forth. There is usually nothing to break.
Trees rise above the flat lands,
and when shaken they rock back and forth, but they are generally
not in trouble unless they get their branches tangled with each
Where there are steep slopes
in the land, like on river banks or bluffs there may be landslides.
That is what has carved the Chickasaw Bluffs along the river
in times past.
Most other structures that rise
into the air are man-made: things like bridges, buildings, overpasses,
grain elevators, water towers, levees, and dams. Most of these
structures are designed to handle the force of gravity that pulls
directly downward. Some were designed with added lateral strength
to withstand the forces of winds blowing from the side, but few
structures were designed with the strength to withstand having
their foundations moved back an forth by forces approaching the
acceleration of gravity. Under that kind of stress the structures
most often break and fall to the lowest level they can find.
510. What are the most dangerous places
to be in an earthquake?
Inside a weak structure is the
worst place you can be in an earthquake. An adobe or unreinforced
masonry building several stories high has been a death trap for
many earthquake victims.
Being outside a tall building
can be deadly. Falling cornices, window panes, and chimneys take
their toll during the shaking.
Don't stand under electric power
If you are driving, avoid being
caught on or under a freeway overpass.
The further you can be from the
trace of the fracture the better. Don't build your house near
a known active fault.
If you are on a fault trace,
the worst shaking will be at either end of the fracture. The
epicenter may in fact experience less damage.
511. Have you ever encountered research
that the new madrid fault is expanding?
No. The New Madrid Seismic Zone
is mapped from the small temblors that occur over the entire
region from southern Arkansas up into Illinois and extending
into Tennessee and Kentucky. Some geologists feel the zone may
connect with seismic activity as far away as the Wabash fault
From what I have seen there is
no indication that the zone of seismic activity is expanding.
However, some recent studies have indicated that there have been
earth movements related to the faults, such as the Reelfoot Rift.
Some of these very large structures have become apparent only
after scientists were able to view satellite photography. What
they see seems to have come from past earthquakes, such as the
series in 1811 and 1812.
The novel "8.4" by
Peter Hernon is based on a hypothetical questions of "what
happens if the fault is expanding?" but there has been nothing
I have seen in the scientific literature to support that premise.
512. How would a New Madrid earthquake
compare to what happened in India in 2001?
In 2001 a magnitude 7.9 earthquake
struck the Gandahar area of India. However, that area is interlaced
with earthquake faults, much like California, so the damage was
not so widespread as what can be expected in the central United
Earthquake Data and
601. How can I share in your data and
get results specific for my city?
I expect to publish The
7.9 Scenario, Analysis & Writing during this coming year
as serialized chapters on this website. The printed version should
be available sometime around the end of 2005. That book will
provide information about specific locations.
I am also working on a means
for providing access to both the calculations and the final data
on a county by county basis on my website.
602. What are the USGS Hazard Maps?
USGS provides Hazard Maps showing
what kind of intensity and damage might be expected for different
Both the intensity of shaking
and the geological structure of the ground enter into how much
damage will be experienced.
603. What do the Hazard Maps tell us?
Use the Hazard Maps when you
are looking for a place to live. There are some areas around
Memphis that are better building sites than others.
You might even want to consider
if you want to move to a particular area, even if they offer
you a good job.
604. How do I learn more about the New
The Internet is an excellent
source of information about the New Madrid Fault. I will continue
to provide information on my website as it becomes available.