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Delanceyplace: The New Madrid Earthquakes

"In 1811-1812, a series of earthquakes known as the New Madrid Earthquakes rocked the Mississippi Valley, reaching a level some estimate as 7.5 to 8.0 on the Richter Scale. These earthquakes remain the most powerful earthquakes ever to hit the eastern United States,'' writes Michael Wallis.

There are estimates that the earthquakes were felt strongly over roughly 130,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles), and moderately across nearly 3 million square kilometers (1 million square miles). The historic 1906 San Francisco earthquake, by comparison, was felt moderately over roughly 16,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles).

Though some feel the chances of recurrence are slight, the zone remains active today. In a report filed in November 2008, The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," further predicting "widespread and catastrophic" damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and particularly Tennessee:

Between December 16, 1811, and late April 1812, a series of devastating earthquakes shook the Mississippi Valley and beyond when more than two thousand tremors, some of Old Testament proportions, rocked the land. Eventually the quakes were called the New Madrid Earthquakes because tiny New Madrid, in the boot-heel region of what was to be named Missouri, was the village closest to the epicenter. It was estimated that the tremors affected more than a million and a half square miles, making whole towns disappear, swallowing up untold numbers of people, and even causing the Mississippi to reverse course and flow backward for several hours.

Between the shocks, people heard the moans of the dying, the bleating of animals, and the screeching of birds. The air was clogged with a thick vapor that smelled like sulfur. Dazed survivors of the initial tremors believed the end of the earth had come and the gates of hell were opening.

The earthquakes were so powerful that they were felt by people in all directions - in New York, New Orleans, Canada, and on the western fringes of the Missouri River. President James Madison claimed that he was tossed from his bed in Washington by the initial shock. It was said that the catastrophic quakes stopped clocks in Boston and set bells ringing in Virginia."

The earthquakes created a remarkable lake, twenty-five miles long and from one-half to eight miles in width on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River. Later named Reelfoot Lake, this body of water sat untouched for many years after Chickasaw Indians and the few white settlers living there vanished due to the many quakes. During that time the area became a paradise for hunters and fishermen; it would later become known as 'the land of the shakes.'

Author: Michael Wallis
Title: David Crockett
Publisher: Norton
Date: Copyright 2011 by Michael Wallis
Pages: 101-102

David Crockett: The Lion of the West
by Michael Wallis by W. W. Norton & Company
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