"[T]he flaw at the heart of our country is not just geological."
July 16, 2015 1:21 PM   Subscribe

Confronting New Madrid (Part 1): In the winter of 1811-12, the New Madrid fault in southern Missouri triggered a series of earthquakes in so powerful they altered the course of the Mississippi River and rang church bells as far away as Philadelphia... and we still don't fully understand why. A similar quake today is estimated to be the costliest disaster in US History.
Confronting New Madrid (Part 2): As dangerous as the threat of "the big one" might be, however, the real disaster is us.

A pair of lengthy, connected essays by Maciej Ceglowski about the New Madrid fault, the potential disaster it poses, and how the hands of geology, history, and public policy all work invisibly the help shape the entire region.

Part I: "At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, and its waters gathering up like a mountain, leaving for the moment many boats, which were here on their way to New Orleans, on bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen to twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the banks were overflowed with the retrogade current, rapid as a torrent—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 laid, to the distance in some instances, of nearly a quarter of a mile. The river falling immediately, as rapid as it had risen, receded in its banks again with such violence, that it took with it whole groves of young cotton-wood trees, which ledged its borders. They were broken off which such regularity, in some instances, that persons who had not witnessed the fact, would be difficultly persuaded, that is has not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the banks, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats."

Part II: [T]he flaw at the heart of our country is not just geological. There's some connection between our inability to confront our past and the refusal to think rationally about the future. These pockets of poverty and despair, so often black poverty, are not an accident of history. They form a vast, second-tier America that we've simply written off for good. In places like Cairo, Fresno, Flint, Gary, Camden, Detroit, Baltimore, the cities of upstate New York, the Indian reservations of South Dakota, Appalachia, a slow-motion disaster has been taking place for decades. There's no need to wait for an earthquake.
posted by absalom (39 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
First it was the Northwest and now you say the Midwest will be shaken to rubble by a giant quake? California is already a goner, we know, and Florida will sink under the water like Atlantis. Where should one go?
posted by caddis at 1:25 PM on July 16, 2015

Go? Where would you go? Stop worrying, grab a beer, and click the "10 ways to have fun while waiting for the apocalypse" link.
posted by MillMan at 1:34 PM on July 16, 2015

I haven't had a chance to read through all of this yet, but just skimming through the pictures in the second essay brought a lot back. I grew up in Kansas City and my family took many a roadtrip through southern Missouri.

suggested soundtrack

(lookit baby jeff tweedy)
posted by dismas at 1:38 PM on July 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Facing the St. Louis arch is a large casino, a windowless Arby's-like building designed by someone who was wronged by architecture as a child and never found the strength to forgive.
posted by jedicus at 1:47 PM on July 16, 2015 [12 favorites]

"...barge traffic is almost entirely subsidized by the nefarious Federal government, who pays the cost of dredging and shaping the river. Like cosmetic surgery, these interventions get more drastic and less effective as time goes on."
I'm fucking dying here.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:59 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Grew up and remember the one earthquake I felt there. Wasn't much, but it did lead to a discussion of the New Madrid fault.
posted by Windopaene at 2:00 PM on July 16, 2015

I, for one, am loving the continuing influx of someday-maybe-catastrophe porn. Nobody has been hurt, so I can rubberneck without feeling morally bankrupt.

I feel pretty safe here in the Northeast. Based on last winter, we're most likely to expire peacefully in our beds (under a nice, thick insta-glacier).
posted by kythuen at 2:16 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Grew up" in Kansas City, "and..."
posted by Windopaene at 2:21 PM on July 16, 2015

Apropos which: The Rift by Walter Jon Williams is WJW's big-ass disaster novel from 1999 about ... well, if you're reading this thread I think it's pretty spoiler-safe, right? (It was going to be his huge bestseller break-out novel but you've never heard of it because psychotic in-fighting at his publishing house basically killed the marketing budget and they then played the usual game of let's-blame-the-author.)

The point is, the New Madrid fault isn't exactly a new discovery ...
posted by cstross at 2:34 PM on July 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

And why is no mystery, either - the New Madrid is one leg of a failed spreading center, if I remember my into to physical geology class correctly.
posted by tommyD at 2:40 PM on July 16, 2015

The point is, the New Madrid fault isn't exactly a new discovery ...

Did you read both links? This isn't the Cascadia article and there's so much more going on here than some GEE WHIZ science that everyone knew 20 years ago.
posted by absalom at 2:45 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Where should one go?
Come to Puerto Rico. Bring money.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:53 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

The fact that it's a failed spreading center doesn't actually explain anything, it just puts a name on the mystery.
posted by idlewords at 2:58 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

This guy is such a fantastic writer, I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one waiting for part 2 to get published. My favorite part:
The Civil War part of the museum promotes the "equal time" school of Civil War historiography that seems to particularly afflict the red states. According to this school, brave Americans divided into two teams and fought for five years over abstract principles of Constitutional law. Both sides had a good point—the North was right that allowing states to secede must eventually lead to anarchy, while the South was correct that it would be impossible to run a plantation economy without chattel slavery. The Civil War, therefore, was a tough call to make.
Not to make a huge screaming derail out of it or anything, the whole article is fascinating and well worth the read.
posted by hap_hazard at 3:30 PM on July 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

Let us not forget the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Something else to keep you awake at night.
posted by Splunge at 3:56 PM on July 16, 2015

Ooooo, I'm a big fan of Maciej Ceglowski, and I use his sites all the time. Now he's writing about my home region and the pending disaster no one around here ever likes to talk about (but that I love to talk about)? Be still my heart.

The region was very sparsely settled at the time, and became more sparsely settled immediately afterwards, as anyone with legs made it their life's mission to get out of southern Missouri.

Pretty much. Yeah, this is starting off great! [keeps reading]
posted by limeonaire at 4:17 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

The group is gratifyingly tolerant of the geologic novices in their midst, but there are moments during the next few days when I feel distinctly out of my depth. Not a dozen miles out of Cahokia, our front passenger points at a row of low hills and says, with a big smile on her face, “Karsty!”

Haha, I get this joke. Yay.
posted by limeonaire at 4:46 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fun fact, something like 70% of homes in St Louis are constructed of un-reinforced brick masonry.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:46 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure my 1900s-era apartment building is. I think about this a lot, especially given how much it seems to be settling already, even in the absence of major seismic activity. Been meaning to post an AskMe about the line of cracks at the top of the walls around the corner of the room I'm currently sitting in...
posted by limeonaire at 4:48 PM on July 16, 2015

"I add ‘drive bulldozer to post-earthquake Missouri’ to my little notebook of get-rich-quick schemes."

So many good little tidbits in this.
posted by epersonae at 4:56 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ste. Genevieve, established in 1750, moved to its present uphill location in 1785 after the settlers discovered what had kept the original riverfront site so remarkably flat and treeless. ...

Ste. Genevieve once made a lot of money selling grain to New Orleans and other towns down the river, where the climate was too hot to grow wheat. Much of that money has gone to pay for lovely cornices and decorative ledges, all of which are going to fall on people's heads when the quake comes.

lol. Making a note to send this to my friend who's a newspaper editor in Ste. Gen...
posted by limeonaire at 5:04 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Interesting about the construction in St. Louis, as I always like to say St. Louis is an "east coast" city, and very different from Kansas City, a "western" city. The houses in KC MO tend to have a ton of the local limestones as walls, etc, rather than brick. Maybe downtown has a lot of old brick though, can't remember.
posted by Windopaene at 5:08 PM on July 16, 2015

We have penetrated deep into America's litterbox. Southeast Missouri is proud to be the world's leading producer of Fuller's earth, a material of many uses that millions of American cats poop into every day. There's a cat litter mine not far from Advance, and one presumes a dark but absolutely odorless bar filled with grizzled litter miners drinking away their retirement.

I'm pretty sure that litter miners are as grizzled as they get.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:11 PM on July 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Much of St. Louis proper dates to the 19th century, when the city was the 3rd largest in the US and booming. Basically the entire city was constructed with red brick from the abundant clay. Even the "new" buildings downtown are oftentimes 1930s construction, brick or concrete with little to no earthquake mitigation techniques. By the time things like seismic stabilization became widely available for earthquake risk areas after WW2, St. Louis was already built and on a massive economic downturn compared to its peak. There's been no recent earthquake activity, so not much in the way of retrofitting either.
posted by T.D. Strange at 5:30 PM on July 16, 2015

Now I'm thinking of American Gods. Poor Cairo...
posted by limeonaire at 5:36 PM on July 16, 2015

I'm confident that between Tommy Lee Jones, Dwayne "the rock" Johnson and Anne Heche we can handle anything geology might throw at us.
posted by humanfont at 6:15 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

This was discussed in Memphis in the early 90s because this dude predicted one at the beginning of the decade. I think that most people just shrugged and added an earthquake rider to their house insurance.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:12 PM on July 16, 2015

More soundtrack music for this post: [1][2]
posted by entropicamericana at 8:08 PM on July 16, 2015

When I reflect on my life at the end, the old downtown of Cairo, and the general depopulation and decay of huge swathes of that region may be on my mind. There's a little village called Shobonier, maybe 10 miles south of Vandalia (another of Illinois former capitals) that is among the most unsettlingly impoverished places I've ever seen (having not been to the 3rd world).
posted by wotsac at 9:24 PM on July 16, 2015

This was fascinating; thanks for posting it. I took a short solo road trip through there 15+ years ago (IIRC, I'd just read that Walter Jon Williams novel!) and therefore had nobody to stop me from making a point of detouring to visit New Madrid (the museum was closed at the time). Nothing much to do there, but I did spend some time with the before-and-after pictures posted at the levee.

I tried asking at the state visitors' centers whether there was any sort of overlook to view the river at Cairo (I really wanted to see something like the aerial photos of the Missouri meeting the Mississippi that I'd seen all my life) and was disappointed to be told that there wasn't anything to see there.

Anyway, great read. Though I have to point out that Ste. Genevieve is only the first European west bank settlement in Missouri.
posted by asperity at 10:24 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I slept through the 2008 earthquake that shook St. Louis a little bit, seeing as how it happened at about 4 AM, but amusingly enough it was an aftershock at around 10 AM that woke me up. I remember coming out of sleep thinking how pleasant it was the way the bed was undulating under me, and by the time I was aware enough to register the wtf of it all the shaking stopped.
posted by invitapriore at 10:44 PM on July 16, 2015

The real question is, how would a New Madrid earthquake affect the integrity of the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel?
posted by Standard Orange at 11:08 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is great, per usual.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:04 AM on July 17, 2015

Topically resonant New Yorker article from this week!
posted by rikschell at 10:54 AM on July 17, 2015

What great writing. Thanks for these.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:59 PM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I realized after reading this, invitapriore, that 2008 quake was the thing that really sparked my interest in all of this. It most definitely woke me up, and I'd never put my hand on the wall before and felt it shaking like that. Aw, my first earthquake...
posted by limeonaire at 5:24 PM on July 17, 2015

Anyone else remember Iben Browning predicting a huge earthquake in 1990? I was 9 and remember being worried:

Browning received notoriety for his erroneous prediction that a major earthquake would occur on the New Madrid Fault around December 2 and 3, 1990, and that the US Government would collapse around 1992. This prediction had no basis in accepted science, and yet was widely reported in the national media, such that it caused considerable concern among residents of the Mississippi Valley. No earthquake occurred in that area on those dates. A study done by the USGS to understand the causes of the earthquake scare described Browning's methodology as being of a non-scientific character.[3]

It was a fairly big media event in the Cincinnati media market. Lots of radio and tv coverage as I remember.

He also was one of the ice age guys in the 70s apparently:

Browning described his climatic theories and findings in Climate and the Affairs of Men (1975), which he co-authored with Nels Winkless III. At that time, he believed that Earth had been through a long warm period and was moving into a dangerous cooling phase. He also declared that he had not detected any effect of human activity on the climate.
posted by imabanana at 11:20 PM on July 17, 2015

Need it be said, Mefi's Own Maciej Cegłowski?
posted by McCoy Pauley at 4:30 AM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

In fairness, I think there is some thought that we'd probably be entering a mini-Ice Age right now if it weren't for the rising CO2 levels.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:52 AM on July 22, 2015

« Older “Ordered lists of songs are as old as radio itself...   |   Viewer Discretion Advised Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments