At 10:17 a.m. on Oct. 17, Mississippi Emergency Management executive director Robert Latham was at Bell Academy in the Delta town of Boyle, teaching the students there to drop, cover and hold on.
His hopes are that they not only learned a new skill, but also that the lesson might one day save their lives.
The event was part of the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, a multi-state earthquake-preparedness initiative. Mississippi is one of 10 states to participate in the ShakeOut, which is coordinated by the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium and its member and associate states, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and dozens of partners.
Here in the Magnolia State, more than 218,000 individuals signed up to participate in this year’s event that is modeled after the state of California’s earthquake education program that launched in 2008. The numbers were still being counted at press time, but MEMA reports that participation was well up from last year, and attributes it to schools.
“We targeted the schools this year because we feel like the best way to reach the adults and raise awareness is through the children,“ Latham said.
The students are also at a relatively high risk of seeing a major earthquake event centered on the New Madrid fault system in their lifetime, which could cause major damage and loss of life in Northwest Mississippi. Scientists estimate that there is a 25 to 40 percent probability of a damaging earthquake occurring in the central U.S. within a 50-year window of time.
Still, it is a tough sell. The New Madrid fault system was responsible for the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes and still has the potential to produce large earthquakes. Since 1812, frequent smaller earthquakes have been recorded in the area, including one in the Memphis area just last year.
However, there has been no major earthquake here in Mississippi in recent history, and officials fight an uphill battle in trying to alert citizens to the potential danger.
Latham said the scenario of a major earthquake event today would make the tremors of the 1800s look tame by comparison in terms of destruction and impact on lives.
“The area was relatively undeveloped when those earthquakes hit. Today, the losses could be much, much worse,” Latham said.
For Latham, the nightmare scenario would be an event that occurred during a weekday. Many residents of Northwest Mississippi commute to Memphis to work, leaving their children behind at school. A major earthquake could devastate Memphis, which is in the crosshairs for a New Madrid-centered event, leaving many Mississippians hurt, perhaps dead, and families separated.
The earthquake risk adds layers of complexity not seen in other natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. With earthquakes, there is no advanced warning, thus no evacuations. Earthquakes also pose a challenge to relief efforts.
“After Katrina, we were able to get supplies and equipment into the coast because the infrastructure was left relatively in tact — all we had to do was clear the roads of trees and debris,” Latham said. “With an earthquake, we could see overpasses come down, roads completely blocked, hindering relief efforts.”
One lesson learned from Katrina, however, might help mitigate this challenge.
“In the aftermath of Katrina, we realized that the stuff we needed for recovery was in the private sector,” Latham said.
With that lesson learned, MEMA is preparing to launch the “Business Emergency Operation Center,” or BEOC. The BEOC would be a new online resource offering situation reports and other information. It would also allow businesses to post supplies and equipment available for use in recovering from a natural disaster.
MEMA is still, testing the system and working out any glitches. Officials there hope to have the system up and running by year’s end.
“The business community is absolutely essential to earthquake recovery. We need to engage the private sector, build a public-private partnership,” Latham said. “Our plans also call for the quick recovery of the business community as it is the economic engine of our state.”
For more on the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, visit the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium’s website at www.cusec.org.