Move Over California: The Next Giant Quake May Hit The Midwest

In recent months, there have been major earthquakes in Venezuela, Fiji, Italy and elsewhere. Here in North America, significant quakes have rattled Oregon, Alaska and the west coast of Mexico. And while the West Coast is notorious for its earthquakes, other portions of the US are also earthquake-prone.

Two earthquakes reported Wednesday morning in Eastern Tennessee have shocked Middle Tennesseans and were felt in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The 4.4 and 3.3 magnitude quakes with an epicenter near Decatur, Tennessee in Meigs County did no significant damage, but the fear is when will the next massive quake strike.

"A 4.4 magnitude earthquake is a reminder for people to be prepared," said John Bobel, a public information officer for the division of emergency management in Kentucky's Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

Middle Tennessee sits between two different seismic zones, the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the East Tennessee Seismic Zone. The New Madrid Seismic Zone extends from Northeastern Arkansas into West Tennessee, Southeastern Missouri, Western Kentucky, and Southern Illinois. The East Tennessee Seismic Zone extends from Northeastern Alabama into Southwestern Virginia.

Scientists have said that the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the East Tennessee Seismic Zone have unleashed major earthquakes for thousands of years: 

"On Dec. 16, 1811, the first of three major earthquakes and numerous aftershocks struck what is now known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a series of faults that stretch 150 miles from Cairo, Illinois, to Marked Tree, Arkansas.

Today the zone threatens Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. That's a different set of faults than Wednesday's quake in the East Tennessee Seismic Zone.

Back in 1811, New Madrid, Missouri, itself had only 400 people, St. Louis to the north had about 1,500 residents and Memphis to the south wasn't even a twinkle in its founders' eyes, according to the Central United States Earthquake Consortium. Damage was reported as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia; and the quakes, estimated at 7.5 to 7.7 magnitude, were felt more than 1,000 miles away in Connecticut."

According to TransRe, an international reinsurance organization, there are more than 11 million people living in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

"The big thing we prepare for is with New Madrid," Bobel said.

"Depending on the significance of an earthquake, Memphis, Tennessee, would be gone; St. Louis would be wrecked."

The Louisville Courier-Journal said the New Madrid quakes of 1811 and 1812 were almost 2,000 times more powerful than Wednesday's 4.4 shockwaves and released almost 90,000 times more energy, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's earthquake calculator.

Meanwhile, as in California, scientists believe that it is not a matter of if, but when the big quake strikes. The damage in the fault zone area could be devastating: "Anything west of I-65, infrastructure would be severely damaged," Bobel said of the interstate that bisects Kentucky and Tennessee.

"The ground could even liquify and turn to mud," which happened in 1811 and 1812.

The America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois estimated that in 2008, a 7.7 magnitude quake along the New Madrid Fault could trigger widespread damage:

"250,000 buildings moderately or severely damaged, more than 260,000 people displaced, significantly more than 60,000 injuries and fatalities, total direct economic losses surpassing $56 billion, $64 billion today when adjusted for inflation. Kentucky would have the next most significant damage, totaling $45 billion, $52 billion today." 

Depending on where the exact epicenter of the quake is, "areas within the NMSZ would experience widespread and catastrophic physical damage, negative social impacts, and economic losses," the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in 2008.

Seismologists warned that the New Madrid Seismic Zone has a 25% to 40% chance of producing the next big quake within the next five decades, according to Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.