October 28, 2005

Video project focuses on earthquake preparedness

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- It's a typical Saturday morning and you're going about your routine. Then suddenly, everything around you begins to shake violently. Furniture crashes to the floor, windows shatter, the floor rolls sickeningly beneath your feet.

What do you do?

It's a scenario that's completely realistic for residents of Southern Illinois, who live amid an active network of geologic cracks known as the New Madrid Fault Zone. Subsurface evidence and the written historic record indicates this array of pressure points radically repositions itself every 125 years or so. When it does that, the surface experiences a violent earthquake.

Two Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty members are heading up an effort to prepare Southern Illinois residents for this somewhat predictable occurrence. And they enlisted the volunteer efforts of dozens of SIUC students and community members to do so.

Scott Hodgson, associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television, and Harvey Henson, a geophysicist in the Department of Geology, are working on a series of short television productions aimed at raising awareness of the New Madrid Fault Zone and its potential to wreak havoc on Southern Illinois and other parts of the Midwest. The first such production, titled "Suddenly…On an Average Day," tentatively is set to air on WSIU Television in December.

The storyline follows a family on a Saturday morning preparing to go about their day just as

the tremblor strikes. It then gives a series of tips for immediate action, some preparedness steps to follow and some instructions on what to do after the ground stops shaking.

"If you're in an earthquake, you have 2 seconds to decide what to do," said Hodgson, who 15 years ago produced another earthquake preparedness video titled, "One Day Without Warning." PBS stations throughout the country used the video for more than a decade.

Henson said the geology of much of the Midwest – a "layer cake" structure consisting of horizontal bands of rock and sediment – can easily transmit much of the surface or near-surface destructive energy created by a strong earthquake. Particularly vulnerable, he said, are structures built on saturated soils along waterways and reclaimed lake and river shores.

No one knows how the infrastructure put in place throughout the Midwest during the last 100 years will react to a strong earthquake.

"This area has never been tested," Henson said. "And that concerns me as a resident, as a father and as a scientist."

The New Madrid Fault Zone touches as many as seven Midwest and Southern states. Little development was in place the last time strong quakes struck the area.

In 1811 and 1812, almost 200 years ago, a series of earthquakes in the area were strong enough to ring church bells on the east coast of the United States. Some reports famously refer to the Mississippi River temporarily flowing backwards as a result of the quakes. Henson said scientists since have estimated that each of these three earthquakes were at least an 8 on the modern Richter scale.

Then in 1895, another strong quake – this one estimated at about 6.7 – struck the area.

That was 110 years ago, and some believe the clock is ticking inevitably toward the next one.

"There are numerous – hundreds or even thousands – of faults in the sub surface that make up the New Madrid Zone," Henson said. "The record and evidence show about every 125 years we see a significant earthquake. Some say every 100 years. A lot of people think we'll see one here in our lifetime."

Hodgson said the idea to revisit the topic came in the wake of last year's devastating tsunami that hit Indonesia. He realized the danger of the quake had fallen out of the local consciousness since 1990, when New Mexico climatologist Iben Browning caused near panic by predicting a 50 percent chance of strong earthquake in the New Madrid Fault Zone on Dec. 3 of that year. The area was focused on the danger of earthquakes in the area for weeks leading up to Browning's prediction, but interest quickly fell off when no quake materialized.

Henson said the 4.5 to 5.5 quakes that rumble through the area every few years remind residents of the danger, but don't occur often enough to spur them into action. That, he said, is why he wanted to work with Hodgson on the video.

"We want to quickly plant a vision of what to do in people's minds. You only have seconds to react," he said.

Hodgson said his students, Department of Theater students and people from the region volunteered thousands of hours to help produce the video, which started production in January and is now undergoing final editing.

"I told them they had a chance to save people's lives," Hodgson said. "They all worked extremely hard."

In addition to short spots that will air on WSIU Television, the duo hopes to gain grant money to produce an hour-long video for broadcast on PBS stations, and to make copies and other materials available on the Web, at malls, schools and other agencies.

Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.