It was on this day in 1812 that a series of violent earthquakes near Missouri caused a tsunami of sorts in the Mississippi River, actually making the river run backward for several hours. The series of tremors and earthquakes, which took place between December 1811 and March 1812, are actually the most powerful in the history of the United States. It started in the city of New Madrid, located near the Mississippi River in present-day Arkansas, which had about 1,000 residents at the time, mostly farmers, hunters and fur trappers. One of the quakes is estimated to have had a magnitude of 8.6. This tremor literally knocked people off their feet and many people experienced nausea from the extensive rolling of the earth. Given that the area was sparsely populated and there weren’t many multi-story structures, the death toll was relatively low. However, the quake did cause landslides that destroyed several communities, including Little Prairie, Missouri. The earthquake also caused fissures–some as much as several hundred feet long–to open on the earth’s surface. Sulfur leaked out from underground pockets and river banks vanished, flooding thousands of acres of land.
On January 23, 1812, an estimated 8.4-magnitude quake struck in nearly the same location, causing disastrous effects. Reportedly, the president’s wife, Dolley Madison, was awoken by the tremor in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, the death toll was again small, as most of the survivors of the first earthquake were now living in tents, in which they could not be crushed. The strongest of the tremors followed on February 7. This one was estimated at an amazing 8.8-magnitude and was probably one of the strongest quakes in human history. It has been documented and reported that church bells rang as fairways as Boston, from the shaking. Brick walls were toppled in Cincinnati. And in the Mississippi River, water turned brown and whirlpools developed suddenly from the depressions created in the riverbed. Waterfalls were created in an instant; in one report, 30 boats were helplessly thrown over falls, killing the people on board. Many of the small islands in the middle of the river, often used as bases by river pirates, permanently disappeared. Large lakes, such as Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake at the Arkansas-Missouri border, were created by the earthquake as river water poured into new depressions. This series of large earthquakes ended in March, although there were aftershocks for a few more years. In all, it is believed that approximately 1,000 people died because of the earthquakes. Keep in mind, many experts believe the New Madrid fault line has the potential to produce large earthquakes in the future. Earthquakes that occur in the New Madrid Seismic Zone potentially threaten parts of eight American states: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Mississippi. Can you imagine what that would do to agricultural shipments, etc?
In a report filed in November 2008, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in “the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States,” further predicting “widespread and catastrophic” damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and particularly Tennessee, where a 7.7 magnitude quake would cause damage to tens of thousands of structures affecting water distribution, transportation systems, and other vital infrastructure. In October 2009, a team composed of University of Illinois and Virginia Tech researchers headed by Amr S. Elnashai, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), considered a scenario where all three segments of the New Madrid fault ruptured simultaneously with a total earthquake magnitude of 7.7. The report found that there would be significant damage, estimating 86,000 casualties, 715,000 damaged buildings, and 7.2 million people displaced. (Source: History; Wiki)