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Producer: Paul Smith
The Great New Madrid Earthquakes
In the wee hours of December 16, 1811, the earth began to shake violently in the central Mississippi River valley. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and the few settlers in the region were knocked out of bed by a roaring earthquake now estimated to be a magnitude 7.7 on the Richter scale. An aftershock almost as powerful jolted the region just a few hours later at daybreak.
It would be a winter to remember. Another quake hit on January 23, 1812, at 9 a.m., with a magnitude of 7.5. Among the eyewitness accounts listed on the Virtual Times website is that of George Heinrich Crist, who was living in Nelson County, Kentucky. After the January quake, he wrote:
"It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost our Amandy Jane in this one—a log fell on her. We will bury her upon the hill under a clump of trees where Besys Ma and Pa is buried. A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end."
Yet another quake struck on February 7, 1812, at 3:45 a.m., with a magnitude 7.7. Aftershocks continued into 1813.
The epicenter of the 1811-12 quakes was the town of New Madrid, a Missouri river town located north of Fulton County, Kentucky. Scientists believe that the New Madrid seismic zone was created by plate tectonics when Reelfoot Rift cracked but failed to open wide into a new ocean, leaving a weak spot in the Earth's crust.
Kentucky Life visits Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Western Kentucky to explore the history of the quakes. Dave Shuffett, with dog Toby by his side, visits the local land forms that resulted from the New Madrid quakes.
Among them is picturesque Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee, where the quake sunk forest land beneath the water. To the northwest of the lake we visit the Kentucky Bend of the Mississippi River, the loop of river that cuts off part of Fulton County from the rest of Kentucky, creating a small peninsula.
In Memphis, Tennessee, Dave meets with earthquake specialists at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium, and the U.S. Geological Survey to learn about earthquake preparedness—and find out the odds of another quake occurring along the New Madrid fault.
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