New Madrid Seismic Zone Catastrophic Earthquake Planning


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an initiative underway with the eight states of the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) in the central United States to develop catastrophic earthquake disaster response plans.  The NMSZ states include Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.  The initiative, known as the NMSZ Catastrophic Earthquake Disaster Response Planning Initiative, involves partnerships and collaboration with hundreds of government agencies; business, industry and voluntary organizations; and scientific and academic institutions. It is part of FEMA’s Catastrophic Disaster Planning Initiative to conduct analyses and develop plans for mass evacuation, sheltering and response to catastrophic disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

The NMSZ collaborative planning is designed to identify high risk areas, assess current disaster response capabilities, identify anticipated response shortfalls, and develop comprehensive planning strategies in the eight NMSZ States. The emphasis is on building local and state capabilities that are integrated with federal capabilities.

The initial phase of the initiative uses scenario-driven workshops in the NMSZ states and local level tabletop exercises. Workshop participants include operational and planning personnel from all levels of government and the private and academic sectors.  State and local participants include emergency services coordinators, emergency management staff, county emergency managers, state and local law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel, public works and public health personnel.  FEMA Headquarters, four FEMA Regions, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the American Red Cross and more than 200 local governments are participating in the initiative.

FEMA embedded support planners in each of the four participating FEMA Regions and in each of the eight NMSZ states, to facilitate scenario-driven planning and identification of required resources based on a bottom-up, local approach. This helps ensure cross-jurisdictional and cross-discipline integration of plans, vertically and horizontally across all levels of government. The planners help the regions and states plan and execute the workshops, provide follow-up assistance to local jurisdictions in each state, and incorporate the outcomes of the planning workshops into each state’s earthquake plan.

Earthquake response capability assessments have been completed for each of the eight NMSZ states and published in the recently released report Impact of Earthquakes on the Central USA. The assessments provided the basis for the scenarios used in the planning workshops. The report outlines the findings of a study conducted in connection with a catastrophic earthquake planning initiative undertaken by the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois in partnership with FEMA; the USACE; the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC); the USGS; and George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. The study is available for download at, click on the second small screen on the left or wait for and click on the headline “New Comprehensive Report on Earthquakes in the Central USA.”

A catastrophic earthquake event in the NMSZ, which runs from west of Memphis, Tenn., through southern Illinois, would physically impact a much larger area than would similar earthquakes elsewhere in the country.  The reasons for this are the susceptibility of the NMSZ to soil liquefaction and the efficiency of the earth’s crust in the Central and Eastern U.S. to transmit earthquake ground shaking, according to the USGS.

The state workshops are designed to gather information for revising the states’ Catastrophic Event Annexes, developing Incident Action Plans for the first 72-hours following an event, and creating functional plans that can be executed soon after their development. While the states are responsible for establishing their own specific planning objectives, the overall goal is to establish a unified approach for responding that integrates the emergency management, private sector and critical infrastructure communities into a single, coordinated response structure that includes federal, state, local, tribal and other government entities, as well as the private sector.  For example, in Illinois, there have been two state-level planning workshops involving about 60 state officials, as well as other participants. Topics included direction and control, search and rescue, communications, logistics and resource management, sheltering and mass care, damage assessment, transportation, and debris removal. Three local tabletop exercises in the state focused on communications, patient tracking, emergency medical, public health, transportation and resource management.

Additional planning workshops are scheduled, including FEMA regional- and national-level workshops. A capstone workshop will involve the integration of all the plans developed through the scenario-based workshops.

The largest earthquakes in history in the continental United States occurred along the NMSZ in the winter of 1811-1812. Moderate earthquakes have occurred several times in the past century in the Central United States, including a 5.2 quake on April 18, 2008, in the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone in southwestern Illinois, just northeast of the NMSZ area.

Earthquake Resources from FEMA

For additional information, click here.

FEMA November 2008 press release.

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