Two centuries after legendary quake, scientists wonder when New Madrid fault will strike again

Millions live in the active seismic zone

Jim Cunningham
September 25, 2017 - 7:44 am

Although it's been more than 200 years since the legendary New Madrid earthquake occurred, Missouri officials say the state remains at risk for a major tremor like the one on Sept. 19 that devastated Mexico City.

Experts estimate the worst in a series of earthquakes that struck around New Madrid in late 1811 and early 1812 would have measured 7.6 on the Richter Scale. Witnesses described seeing and hearing trees felled and seeing the Mississippi briefly flowing backward.

The New Madrid fault is the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains, said Jeff Briggs, with the Missouri Emergency Management Agency.

"The New Madrid seismic zone, which is centered down in the bootheel of Missouri, generates more than 200 earthquakes a year," Briggs said. "A lot of those are too small to be felt, but it does show that it's an active seismic zone."

Another huge earthquake involving the faultline could have an impact on 14 states, including much of southern and eastern Missouri. 

A 1990 FEMA report estimated that a 7.6 quake would result in about $3 billion in property damage, cause more than 260 deaths and result in more than 1,000 serious injuries in St. Louis alone. 

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