Will a Major Quake Shake the Midwest?

Geology researcher Harvey Henson of Southern Illinois University has produced TV spots to alert the public to the possibility of a major earthquake in the American Midwest. He talks about his research with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Many people expect the `big one' to hit in California, but geologists speculate that in the next 15 years a major earthquake could also strike the Midwest.

(Soundbite from public service announcement)

Unidentified Man: It's an average Saturday morning, nothing out of the ordinary. But what if today, something unexpected happened? What if you found yourself in a life-threatening situation?

(Soundbite of rumbling; items clanging together)

SIMON: This is one of a number of public service announcements set to run throughout the Midwest in the coming months. Harvey Henson is a researcher at the department of geology at Southern Illinois University, and he developed the TV spots. He joins us now from member station WSIU in Carbondale.

Mr. Henson, thanks for being with us.

Mr. HARVEY HENSON (Southern Illinois University): My pleasure.

SIMON: And is this the New Madrid fault that people talk about over the years?

Mr. HENSON: That's correct. This is the most seismically active area east of the Rocky Mountains. And large earthquakes in southern Illinois have happened historically, and as recently as 1811, 1812, we've had disastrous earthquakes, magnitude 8. Outside the 1964 Anchorage, Alaska, earthquake, these were the largest earthquakes probably to hit the US. The area affected by these 1811, 1812 series of earthquakes are probably about 10 times larger than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Today, because we don't have major earthquakes, people's interest waxes and wanes. We have small earthquakes, magnitudes 4's and 5's every four or five years and people become interested and then they quickly go on their way and become disinterested.

SIMON: Midwesterners just don't have a lot of earthquake consciousness at this point?

Mr. HENSON: Right. We don't get tested, and we've only known about the earthquake potential, the New Madrid seismic zone, since the mid '70s.

SIMON: Why are these spots running now, Mr. Henson?

Mr. HENSON: The historical evidence suggests that 6 to 6 1/2 magnitude earthquakes happen about every 120, 125 years. So the last one in this region happened in 1895 near Charleston, Missouri, it began.

SIMON: Well, if you do the math, then...

Mr. HENSON: That's right. We may be due for another one in that magnitude range, and we may save lives. 'Cause this video really is powerful. I could share with you a story that--with my three-year-old and five-year-old at home, we took the video home. And afterwards, my wife and I asked them, `What would you do if a major earthquake happened right now?' They looked at each other, looked at us and then they ran for the kitchen table. We have a large wooden table in the kitchen, and they both ran to the kitchen table and ducked underneath. So I feel pretty excited about this video. If a three-year-old can understand what to do after seeing the video and how to respond properly in just a few seconds during a major earthquake, I think there's power in preparing the general public.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Henson, very good to talk to you. Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. HENSON: Thank you.

SIMON: Harvey Henson is a researcher in the department of geology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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