In 1811 and 1812, three of the largest earthquakes ever felt in the continental United States devastated the crossroads of northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri.
Known as the New Madrid Earthquakes, they had estimated magnitudes of up to 8.7 and ruined farmland, displaced people and altered landscapes around the region.
But the faults that caused them, which fall under the New Madrid Seismic Zone, are still active today. Scientists estimate that in the next 50 years, the region has a 25-40% chance of experiencing a quake over a magnitude of six and a 7-10% chance of experiencing one over a magnitude of 7.5.
Jeff Briggs, the earthquake program manager for Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency, said a quake like the ones 200 years ago would cause large-scale damage to homes, transportation routes and water and power lines. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources estimates about 87,000 buildings would experience damages, and the state would lose about $69 billion in recovery efforts. Total earthquake damages across all affected areas would reach about $296 billion. These figures do not include indirect losses.
“If we get another huge one, like what happened 200 years ago, it’s going to be the largest natural disaster that this region has ever seen,” Briggs said. “We tell people in Southeast Missouri and surrounding states as well to be prepared to self-sustain — that is, to be without power and water for potentially weeks.”
Complete preparation for an earthquake is impossible, so Briggs said the goal is to get people as ready as possible. As the threat looms, several organizations are leading efforts to raise awareness about what to do if the time comes and others are partnering with architects and engineers to address structural issues in building designs.
While people in southeastern Missouri are typically aware of potential earthquake threats, Briggs said others in the state may not understand the risk because they live further from the high impact area. This lack of awareness could cause problems if a big quake were to strike, especially because St. Louis is one of the big cities that will be “significantly impacted.”
The impact of this potential quake extends beyond Missouri, as well. Briggs works with the Central United States Earthquake Consortium to perform broader regional outreach, as high-magnitude earthquakes can produce effects hundreds of miles away. He said quakes travel “very well” along rivers, so a quake in the Missouri area could travel north on the Ohio River to Illinois and Indiana, or south along the Mississippi River.
One large program, The Great Central U.S. ShakeOut Day, aims to prepare everyone in these potentially impacted regions. The initiative registers millions of people to plan and partake in an earthquake drill on the third Thursday of October. It serves as an annual reminder for residents in states impacted by the New Madrid Zone to check and update their safety systems. It also raises awareness in other parts of the U.S. and worldwide.
Basic earthquake safety involves a three step plan: drop, cover and hold on. While Briggs said it’s instinctive to run, this can raise one’s chances of being hit by debris or getting knocked over. According to Briggs, surviving is all about dodging falling objects, as they tend to cause the most earthquake-related injuries or deaths.
Brian Blake, the associate director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), said the ShakeOut has been “very successful” in raising awareness and preparedness.
In recent years and on a larger scale, Briggs said there have also been efforts to retrofit many older buildings, while Blake said earthquake-engineer-friendly structures are starting to replace others.
The inflexibility of brick buildings means they’re more prone to crumbling, and Briggs said there are thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings in southeastern Missouri. He added there’s “no way” anyone has the resources to retrofit all of them. Right now, Blake said critical facilities like fire stations take priority for practices like retrofitting. Briggs added that the process can be complex and expensive.
In the meantime, both suggest securing heavy items to walls or moving them to lower shelves, or protecting items that may be essential to day-to-day living, which are cost-effective ways to increase personal safety.
Blake said new building codes are starting to encompass earthquake-resistant techniques.
“It is like a marathon and not a sprint,” Blake said. “We’re working on projects with the states and the federal government right now to identify those facilities that might be at risk and then develop plans to address that.”
But physical preparedness is just part of the effort — the impacts of an earthquake don’t immediately end after the shaking stops. Briggs said the biggest disasters sometimes come with aftershocks, which can be even bigger than the first quake. Potential damage to major roads will cut off key sources of transportation, which he said will essentially lock the region away from the outside world.
To prepare, families need to have plans for survival and recovery in the immediate aftermath, which includes assembling tools like a survival kit. Statewide, Briggs said a team of various partners in Southeastern Missouri also works to regularly update a statewide earthquake plan.
“[The plans we make] include lots of resource capabilities, coordination and training,” Briggs said. “The destruction and the recovery time is going to be so great, that the better prepared we are, the better we’ll be able to recover for sure.”
In high risk regions, earthquake damages will also be costly, and financial recovery is yet another factor to consider. The Missouri Department of Commerce and Insurance estimates insurance losses alone will total to about $120 billion.
Lori Croy, the Director of Communications for the Missouri DCI, said those without earthquake insurance don’t have a ready source of protection. In high risk regions, Croy said homes could be “completely destroyed.” If homeowners still have mortgages on their homes, they’ll still have a mortgage on the property, even if it’s rendered uninhabitable. Insurance helps with mortgage and rebuilding, among other pending costs.
A common misconception people have is that the federal government will aid individuals in recovery efforts, but Croy said agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency will only compensate a maximum of less than $40,000. This would not nearly be enough to cover earthquake expenses for most families, and Croy said the money would also take a long time to process. During this waiting time, people would have to rely on short term assistance, which can be unreliable.
Still, the percentage of people with earthquake coverage in the New Madrid region of Missouri continues to decline. Between 2000 and 2021, quake insurance in the area dipped from 60.2% down to 11.4%.
“It’s a huge drop, while at the same time experts say that the risk of having a significant seismic event grows every day,” Croy said.
After partnering with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center to conduct consumer research on these falling numbers, Croy said one of the surprising reasons people didn’t have earthquake insurance was because they thought they were already insured.
Earthquake insurance is not included in homeowner’s policies, and Croy said the Missouri DCI is using consumer education to encourage people to figure out an insurance plan. Their efforts have made some progress, and Croy said they’ve started increasing understanding in the surrounding community.
But there are also disparities in the insurance community due to rising costs and lessening availability. In recent years, Croy said some profit-driven insurance companies have pulled out of providing earthquake insurance for high impact regions, and the cost of the limited earthquake insurance in those areas has continued to rise. She said this primarily impacts lower-income families and communities.
“That’s one of the things that everyone is very concerned about,” Croy said. “There are lots and lots of communities that have people in a lower income bracket … So that’s a part of the conversation we’re having is, ‘How do we protect everyone? How do we protect those that can’t protect themselves?’”
As opposed to individual insurance policies, Croy said one solution has been to consider community-based insurance options. Communities can sometimes pay for parametric insurance, which is triggered by a specific event and offers pre-specified and faster payouts.
Though CUSEC is a smaller organization, Blake said they also work with these communities to develop safe building plans and identify at-risk buildings. This then allows the specific community, city or county to update their safety plans and apply for additional funding from an organization like FEMA.
Conversations about protection are still underway in all parts of preparedness, and Croy said combatting challenges will take teamwork. She hopes these efforts will reduce the long term impacts for everyone.
“One thing that we all know is that none of us are going to be able to provide this kind of planning and protection alone,” Croy said. “It’s going to take more than the insurance industry, it’s going to take more than government. It’s going to take everybody working together to find solutions that may not be solutions that we commonly think of today.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the log church was the oldest church in the U.S., when it is actually one of the oldest churches west of the Allegheny Mountains. This story was updated on November 2, 2022.