It's easy to think of an earthquake as a Californian problem for the rest of the U.S., but the truth — only made more clear by Tuesday's 5.8-magnitude tectonic jiggling — is that the rest of the country is in danger, too. In fact, just this year the government simulated how bad a Midwestern "big one" could be, and it wasn't pretty.
Called National Level Exercise 11 (or NLE 11), the government was looking at what would happen if a major quake happened along the New Madrid fault line, which is like the San Andreas of the Midwest.
In May, the federal government simulated an earthquake so massive, it killed 100,000 Midwesterners instantly, and forced more than 7 million people out of their homes. At the time, National Level Exercise 11 went largely unnoticed; the scenario seemed too far-fetched — states like Illinois and Missouri are in the middle of a tectonic plate, not at the edge of one.
Sound far-fetched? It shouldn't. The New Madrid fault line was actually rocked by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake some 200 years ago, and 50,000 square miles of U.S. real estate saw "raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides," the U.S. Geological Service notes, adding that "huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared."
The casualties weren't high, thankfully, but the population density in the Midwestern United States was also far lower 200 years ago. Even ignoring the loss of life, the damage to infrastructure — power, communications, the ability to supply fresh water, roads — would be bad enough, not to mention the fact that there are 15 nuclear power plants within the seismic zone of the New Madrid fault line.
The bottom line here is that we're simply not prepared. Maybe we couldn't ever be prepared even, but that doesn't mean we can't plan to at least be in better shape, nor that we can't learn from smaller magnitude tremors such as the one that hit Virgina on Tuesday.