ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – In just two days, the St. Louis area will participate in a series of earthquake preparedness drills at schools and businesses. As part of the Great Central Shake-Out residents will duck under tables and learn how to protect themselves against an event which hasn’t occurred in centuries: a major earthquake in St. Louis.
In the predawn hours of December 16, 1811, the first in a series of tremors which would last months awoke residents of New Madrid in southeast Missouri. Trees snapped, chimneys fell, and great waves caused by the earthquake toppled boats on the Mississippi River. A second quake hit on January 23, 1812 and a third on February 7, 1812. Aftershocks were felt for years.
On November 9, 1968, a magnitude 5.5 quake centered in southern Illinois could be felt in 23 states. That earthquake, nearly 45 years ago, marks the last time the St. Louis area experienced significant effects from an earthquake.
While an absence of recent earthquakes in St. Louis is good news, Missouri’s Emergency Management Agency program director is concerned there is an entire generation of residents which doesn’t know what a major quake feels like.
“Not knowing exactly what you could expect from something like this and realizing that a large earthquake like that would be as big as a situation we’ve had to handle on the state level, and Missouri would not be the only state that would be seriously effected,” Steve Besemer said.
Besemer says a lot rests on local governments and their enforcement of codes requiring buildings to be built to withstand a large quake.
“Certainly the building code did not really incorporate much in the way of requirements related to earthquakes until the late 80’s basically so look at buildings built before that and they probably did not really have any sort of earthquake resistance built into them. So, that’s a concern,” he explained.
Overall, Besemer believes the Missouri Department of Transportation has done a good job of retrofitting bridges and new construction according to modern standards, though he remains concerned about the “unknown” factor.
“If we would have an earthquake similar to what we had during the series of great earthquakes in 1811/1812, certainly from the information we look at, those earthquakes would be felt over a large area of Missouri, possibly cause some considerable damage,” Besemer said.