Friday, September 02, 2005

Harbinger of things to come?

Wake Up Zombies makes a good point with this article about the New Madrid Fault line and the impending earthquake that will make this week's New Orleans look mild. It is going to happen, when is the only question. In our lifetime? Most likely.

I remember some years back when an expert had made dire predictions of a major event along the fault and everyone was talking about it. I remember going a little faster when I drove across the Mississippi River bridge at Memphis. But you hear little about it these days and that is lulling us into a false sense of security.

We need to be prepared for "the big one". Much more so than New Orleans was prepared for theirs. To give you an idea of what we're really talking about, I want to quote a letter written in 1816 by an eyewitness to the earthquake of 1811-12. Her memories of it are vivid and graphic and the best account I have found so far.

New Madrid, Territory of Miss.
March 22, 1816

Dear Sir:

In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history, as full in detail as the limits of a letter will permit, of the late awful visitation of Providence in this vicinity. On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o’clock A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise, resembling loud, but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few moments by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness.
The screams of the affrighted inhabitants, running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do, cries of the fowls and beasts of every species, the cracking of falling trees and the roaring of the Mississippi, the current of which was retrograde for a few moments, owing, as is supposed, to an eruption in its bed, formed a scene truly horrible.
From that time until about sunrise, a number of slight shocks occurred, at which time one, still more violent than the first, took place with the same accompaniments as the first, and the terror which had been excited in every one, and, indeed, in all animal nature, was, now, if possible, doubled. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing, if it can be admitted that their minds were exercised at all, that there was less danger at a distance from, than near the river. In one person, a female, the alarm was so great that she fainted and could not be recovered.
There were several shocks in a day, but lighter, until the 23rd of January, 1812, when one occurred as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomena as the former. From this time until the 4th of February, the earth was in constant agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the preceding ones. Next day, four shocks and on the 7th at about four o’clock A.M., a concussion took place, so much more violent than those that had preceded it, that it was the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere, which, as formerly, was saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous, thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene the description of which will require the most sublimely fanciful imagination. At first, the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks and its waters gathered up like a mountain, leaving for a moment, many boats, which were here on their way to New Orleans, on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then, rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the banks were overflowed with a retrograde current. The boats, which before had been left on the sand, were now torn from their moorings and suddenly driven up a little creek at the mouth of which they lay, to the distance in some instances, of nearly a quarter of a mile. The river, falling immediately, as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took whole groves of young cotton-wood trees, which hedged its borders. They were broken off with such regularity, in some instances, that persons who had not witnessed the fact, could be, with difficulty, persuaded that it had not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the banks living, unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wreck of boats and it seemed that one was wrecked in which there were a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.
In all the hard shocks mentioned, the earth was horribly torn to pieces. The surface of hundreds of acres was, from time to time, covered over of various depths by the sand which issued from the fissures, which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which it must be remembered, was the matter generally thrown up. In some places, however, there was a substance somewhat resembling coal or impure stone coal, thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of the fissures or irregular breaks was. We have reason to believe that some of them were very deep.
The site of this town was evidently settled down at the least fifteen feet, and not more than half a mile below the town, there does not appear to be any alteration in the bank of the river, but back from the river a small distance, the numerous large ponds or lakes as they were called, which covered a great part of the country, wer nearly dried up. The beds of some of them are elevated above their former banks several feet, producing an alteration of ten, fifteen or twenty feet from their original state. And, lately, it has been discovered that a lake was formed on the opposited side of the Mississippi, in the Indian country, upwards of one hundred miles in length and from one to six miles in width, of a depth of from ten to fifty feet. It has communication with the river at both ends and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.
We were constrained, by the fear of our house falling, to live twelve or eighteen months after the first shock, in little light camps made of boards but we gradually became callous and returned to our house again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks, have since returned home.
We have, since their commencement in 1811, continued to feel slight shocks occasionally. It is seldom, indeed, that we are more than a week without feeling one and sometimes three or four in a day. There were two this winter past, much harder than we have felt them for two years before, but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been, and we begin to hope that ere long, they will entirely cease.
I have now, sir, finished my promised description of the earth quake, imperfect, it is true, but just as it occurred to my memory, many of and most of the truly awful scenes having occurred three or four years ago. They, of course, are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the charactoer of a full and correct picture, but such as it is, it is given with pleasure, in the full confidence that it is given to a friend.
And now, sir, wishing you all good, I must bid you adieu.

Eliza Bryan

The Rev. Lorenzo Dow.

P.S. There is one circumstance which I think worthy of remark. This country was formerly subject to very hard thunder, but, for more that a twelvemonth before the commencement of the great earthquake, there was none at all and but very little since, a great part of which resembles subterraneous thunder. The shocks still continue, but are growing more light and less frequent.

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