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Shaking up local attitudes: Local citizens must prepare for the next major earthquake

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

SIKESTON -- Anyone who hasn't started preparing for a major earthquake should do so now, emergency officials said during Tuesday's town hall meeting at the Clinton Building in Sikeston.

About 100 public officials and concerned citizens turned out for the meeting, which kicked off the statewide observance of Earthquake Awareness Week set for Feb. 3-8.

"I just wanted to see what the city has planned if we have an earthquake and what we can do to help," said Carol Towe of Sikeston about why she came out for the meeting. "Our odds of it happening are getting greater."

Tom Bridger, emergency management coordinator for the city of Sikeston, said he was pleased with the turnout, although attendance could have been a little higher.

"I hope everyone left with a better sense of awareness and the fact they need to be prepared -- and that 72 hours isn't going to cover it," Bridger said, adding he thinks the city has been proactive to earthquake preparedness.

Dr. Steve Horton, research scientist at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis, was the keynote speaker. He provided an overview of why earthquakes occur in this area, how the situation is being monitored, how scientists are learning from the past and what citizens can do to prepare for an earthquake.

Horton pointed out evidence indicates major earthquakes like those in 1811

-1812 occur in 500-year increments. And the probability of an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 to 8.0 occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone in the next 50 years is 7 to 10 percent; the probability of an earthquake 6.0 or greater occurring in the next 50 years is 25-40 percent.

Panel members were also on hand for a question and answer session following Horton's presentation.

"One of the things that is paramount is for us to prepare as a city. We'll be on our own for seven to 10 days before we get any help," said Drew Juden, director of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety.

Juden, who was recently appointed to the Missouri Seismic Commission by the governor, sat on the panel Tuesday night.

Although Juden admitted he is still new to his state position, he was able to provide insight on state and local plans for earthquake preparedness. For example, the state is prepackaging response plans right now, he told the crowd.

"So if there's a seismic event that reaches a certain criteria, there will be an automated response," Juden explained. "There will be a preplan response that will come into the affected area before a request is made. And then after that, they'll evaluate and look at the additional resources."

Juden said the state is also in a big discussion about the importance of evacuation routes in the event of a devastating earthquake.

The state has also asked for funding so the critical infrastructure in Southeast Missouri, such as hospitals and fire stations, can be evaluated.

"Then we can have some kind of understanding what's going to happen if we get that 7.8 shake. Will we have a hospital we can depend on or will we lose portions of it?" Juden questioned.

Then once a report is made, resources can be distributed effectively, Juden said.

Other panelists included: Bridger; Sue Evers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Region 7 in Kansas City, Mo.; Jim Palmer, geologist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geology and Land Survey; and Mark Winkler, coordinator for State Emergency Management Agency's Area E.

Jim Wilkinson, executive director for the Central Earthquake Consortium, served as the panel moderator.

One topic addressed by an audience member was if there is a major quake and the Missouri National Guard is activated, what is the status as to where they're sent -- urban or rural areas?

Wilkinson said just because a city has a National Guard unit doesn't mean they will work in that city.

"These guys have specialties that may be needed in the other areas," he said.

However, Winkler noted the fact Adj. Gen. King Sidwell is from Sikeston is a big plus for the region. But where the National Guard unit is deployed, also depends on what the request is, he added.

One woman asked: "If there was a big earthquake tonight, what would be the safest building to go to (in Sikeston), and if I decided to evacuate, which would be the best direction-- Memphis, Tenn., or St. Louis?"

Juden said he didn't think the woman or anyone else would be able to go anywhere in the event of a major earthquake, and he said officials haven't identified any really safe shelters in the city yet.

"The only thing most people don't know is what's going to happen when you get that 7.8 followed by a 7.5 followed by a 7.3 that happens in 24, 48 or 72 hours?

"It's not going to be one shake and it's over, and a week later, we recover and everything's great and wonderful. It's going to be a rapid succession of multiple events," Juden said.

Handouts on earthquake preparedness -- before, during and after -- were available for attendees as well as other information.

The meeting was videotaped and will air on the Sikeston R-6 cable access channel. At press time, Bridger wasn't sure of specific air dates.

"Something we're looking at is having additional follow-up meetings on the local level without the state and federal officials," Bridger said. "I'd like to get people from utilities, hospitals and school systems for the follow-up." Following the meeting, Towe said she was glad she attended although some of her questions were left unanswered.

"It was informative, but it sounds like they're still in the process of formulating a plan," Towe said. "And hopefully they'll do that before very long. It's a start."