The 200th anniversary of the worst earthquake to occur in North American east of the Rocky Mountains since European settlement is approaching.

A series of four major earthquakes began on Dec. 16, 1811, near the present town of New Madrid, Mo., just across the Mississippi River from Kentucky.

A quake estimated to range from 7.2 to 8.1 on the Richter scale shook the central United States at 2:15 a.m. Six hours later, another quake of almost equal intensity occurred.

Those were followed by a quake rated at 7.0 to 7.8 on Jan. 23, 1812, and another, estimated at 7.4 to 8.0, followed on Feb. 7.

(The earthquake that occurred in Japan on Friday, causing a devastating tsunami, registered 8.9.)

The final quake in the New Madrid series caused an uplift, briefly reversing the Mississippi River’s flow and creating a permanent shallow body of water in northwestern Tennessee known as Reelfoot Lake.

The shaking ground caused church bells to ring as far away as Boston, according to the online encyclopedia,

Another New Madrid event of similar scale would be felt in central Kentucky, according Dr. Zheming Wang, a seismologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey, but damage would not be severe.

The limestone bedrock that underlies the Bluegrass plain would minimize damage, he said. Tall buildings in Lexington and Richmond, including those at Eastern Kentucky University, should be safe, Wang said.

Some cracked chimneys and building foundations would probably be the worst damage to occur, he said.

The chemical weapons stored in the Chemical Activity on the Blue Grass Army Depot also should be secure, even after a repeat of the New Madrid events, said Sheryl Lowell, spokesperson for the activity.

The weapons are stacked on pallets in storage buildings, commonly called igloos, that are partially below ground.

The pallets, similar to crates, are banded together and, therefore, “very unlikely to tip over in the event of an earthquake or any other natural disaster,” she said.

The igloos also are designed and constructed to withstand the effects of natural disasters, such as tornadoes, a much more likely occurrence, and earthquakes, Lowell said.

The Chemical Limited Area of the depot always is under guard, and CLA personnel stay in close contact with the Madison County Emergency Management Agency, she said.

Every three months, the CLA practices its emergency response plan to “ensure all procedures are in place and the community is protected.”

The last significant earthquake centered in Kentucky occurred on a Sunday afternoon 30 years ago, July 27, 1980.

A subterranean shift of rock strata along an unmapped fault in Bath County registered 5.1 on the Richter Scale and was felt in 13 states. It caused damage estimated at about $1 million in Maysville, about 30 miles to the north.

Almost 90 homes and 27 businesses suffered major damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website. Another 210 homes and 10 businesses had minor damage.

Tornadoes, floods and ice storms may be more common than earthquakes in central Kentucky, but state and local planners are still preparing for seismic events.

On April 28, institutions, businesses, families and others in states around the New Madrid fault will take part in an earthquake drill known as The Great Central United States Shakeout, said Kelly McBride, spokesperson for the Madison County Emergency Management Agency.

The Richmond Fire Department, with support from the county EMA, will conduct a safety fair at Eastern Kentucky University that day.

Although fire safety usually is the focus of the annual fair the department conducts on campus, earthquake awareness will be included this year, said Corey Lewis, fire department spokesperson.

The department decided to schedule the safety fair for April 28 this year, he said, to coincide with the Shakeout event to add the emphasis on earthquake preparedness.

During May, local and state EMA officials will be cooperating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in reviewing plans and practicing responses to potential earthquakes, McBride said.

Kentucky is at moderate, but real, risk for an earthquake, according to information provided by Lewis.

He offered some tips to prepare for an earthquake and minimize its effect on home and increase personal safety:

• By performing simple improvements such as repairing deep plaster cracks in ceilings and foundations, anchoring overhead lighting fixtures to the ceiling, and following local seismic building standards, homes will be better suited to withstand the effects of an earthquake

• Before starting new construction, learn about local seismic building standards.

• Fasten shelving units securely to the walls and place large or heavy objects on lower shelves.

• Do not hang heavy pictures or mirrors above beds or couches.  

• Secure water heaters and gas appliances by strapping them to wall studs or by bolting them to the floor.

• Know how to shut off gas valves to prevent potential fire hazards.

Having a sturdy foundation is essential, Lewis said. That is why mobile homes and homes not attached to their foundation are at increased risk during earthquake.

If you are inside when an earthquake occurs, performing the duck, cover and hold exercise is perhaps the best way to stay safe and minimize injury, he said.

Other earthquake safety tips include:

• Stay indoors and away from windows. If you are in bed when the shaking starts, stay there, curl up and protect your head. Only when you are sure it is safe to do so, and the shaking has stopped, exit the structure.

• Remember to take the stairs and never an elevator.

• Be aware that fire alarms and sprinkler systems frequently go off during an earthquake and may not indicate there is a fire.  

• If you are outside when an earthquake starts, find an area free of overhead obstructions, drop to the ground and stay there until the shaking stops.

• If you are in a vehicle, pull over to an area free from overhead obstructions and park; keep your seat belt on. Proceed with caution after the shaking stops and avoid bridges and ramps that may have been damaged during the quake.

Bill Robinson can be reached at or at 624-6622.

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