Earthquake with en echelon fracture

Above, an earthquake caused an en echelon fracture in Napa, Calif., in 2014. Last week, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc in southern California.

Almost everyone knows the San Andreas Fault in California could cause severe damage to the West Coast. But fewer people probably realize the New Madrid Seismic Zone that runs through Kentucky and seven other states also poses a risk for serious earthquakes.

“You don’t think of Kentucky as being earthquake country,” said Bill Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey and a professor at the University of Kentucky.

But Kentucky’s small area along the New Madrid has as high a hazard as California, Haneberg said.

Historically, clusters of big earthquakes occur along the New Madrid about every 500 years. When tectonic plates in the fault “slip,” meaning the continuously slowly moving plates begin to move again after getting caught on each other, there’s a release of energy through the earth’s crust and subsequent shaking.

“They’re not very common, but they’re very destructive,” Haneberg said.

Since the 1990s, communities along the New Madrid corridor began to recognize this potential threat and started retrofitting buildings and bridges in preparation.

And with mushrooming digital data and advancing modeling methods like LIDAR – a tool that produces 3-D maps of the Earth’s surface – geologists now have the ability to better inform preemptive measures with simulations.

If a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ruptured from the New Madrid, there could be 500 deaths, thousands of hospitalizations and $8.2 billion in economic losses, based on simulations with a Federal Emergency Management Agency model – which differs with the time of day, as Sunday afternoon is different than 5 p.m. on a weekday, Haneberg said.

“It doesn’t occur very often, but when it does occur again, it’s going to have a very significant impact,” Haneberg said, and “it’s fairly likely that it will occur very soon.”

The Kentucky threat lies in the western-most counties. The active faults don’t pass directly through Bowling Green. During a severe earthquake, simulations indicate there would be moderate damage to well-built structures in the city. But significant shaking could potentially cause a new sinkhole to open – especially if there was water pooled from heavy rains.

“In Bowling Green, we wouldn’t see the worst of it. We wouldn’t be seeing the same thing as Paducah would be seeing,” said Caitlyn French, administrative specialist at Warren County Emergency Management. “But if we had the ‘Big One,’ as we like to call it, we would definitely be affected.”

In Warren County, severe weather and flooding are generally the most common natural disaster threats that face residents. Tornadoes are also significant threats, along with strong winds and occasional winter ice storms.

Serious earthquakes are rare.

“It’s not always on the forefront of everyone’s minds,” French said, but the agency is always aware of the threat and routinely performs exercises.

Every October, Warren County EMA helps local schools participate in the regional earthquake drill, the “Great Central U.S. ShakeOut.” Last year, the agency set off the sirens and sent out notifications, and children “drop, cover and hold on” during the drills – which generally involves jumping under a desk and waiting for announcements.

To prepare for an eventual earthquake, people should create a plan for themselves and their children, including what to do and where to go whether they’re at work, school or home.

“Know what your hazards would be around you,” French said, such as power or gas lines – and have non-sparking tools handy to shut off gas if a line ruptures.

Since phone lines tend to tie up during emergencies, it’s a good idea to know which out-of-state friend or relative to contact. And it’s better to text than call.

During an earthquake, Warren County EMA would first address the needs of area citizens and ensure that there were no immediate infrastructure threats, according to French.

Then they’d send extra resources out west to the fault line.

– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggers dailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.

– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggersdailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

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