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Current Event History


          Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes swept the western and middle counties of the State of Tennessee on April 30th through May 3rd, 2010. These storms dropped hurricane-like record amounts of rain on 53 or more counties. There were at least 12 tornadoes reported in the storm system, significant amounts of lightning, strong straight line winds and flash flooding. The amounts of rain appeared to match hurricane-level rainfall.

            In a drama that was recorded live by a local television station a modular classroom floated off its foundation and drifted down Interstate 24 near Bell Road, sinking cars and disintegrating in a culvert near Mill Creek. Fortunately, the center divider held back the 3-4 feet of water from sweeping escaping drivers and people in shock standing on the opposite side of the flooded roadbed. Not far from there a person was carried away in the current and drowned.


            In West Tennessee, 14 to 22 inches of rain fell, and in Middle Tennessee, between 6 and 16 inches of rain fell. Record amounts caused major streams to near flood level or to crest above flood level. The Cumberland River overflowed its banks in Nashville and in Clarksville inundating broad areas. In Nashville water covered First and Second Avenue and damaged businesses on the opposite side of the river, including LP Stadium, Opryland Hotel, the Opry House and Opry Mills Shopping Center.

            The State Emergency Operations Center was activated on May 1, 2010 at 1230 CDT. The SEOC was advanced to activation level 2, major disaster, but later fell to Level 4 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Joint Field Office (JFO) opened on May 17th. This level describes recovery operations in the JFO on a 7 am to 7 pm core work period with no night shift.


            The flooding and storms caused the deaths of 24 persons:  These deaths were mostly caused by water – 11 in Davidson County (although one was subsequently ruled natural by the medical examiner), 2 in Perry County, 2 in Stewart County, 1 in Carroll County, 1 in Williamson County, 1 in Shelby County, 1 in Gibson County, 1 in Hickman County, 1 in Montgomery County, 1 in Tipton County, 1 in Maury County and 1 (tornado related) in Hardeman County.


            There were several close calls in the disaster that could have made the situation worse. A train with nearly 500 passengers was stranded due to water over the tracks. At one point a loaded grain barge floated free on the Cumberland requiring the U.S. Coast Guard to send out a tug to capture it before it could crash into a bridge or a dam. There was a possibility that some large petroleum storage tanks would float free of their foundation and release fuel into the Cumberland. There was a fear that the levee on the downtown side of the river could fail and flood the businesses and communications centers in Metro Center. There was a danger that the Omohundro water treatment plant would fail leaving Metro Nashville with no clean water source. There was even a concern with the U.S. Corps of Engineers regarding whether it was safer to release water downstream risking more flooding or risking the safety of the dams by over-topping. Response teams did a great job, often without anyone realizing the value of their work, saving their communities from even greater calamities.

            The Tennessee National Guard activated almost 500 soldiers to perform support duties, including delivery of bottled water to many communities whose water systems were shut down or contaminated. Almost 450,000 gallons of water went to 10 counties.

            The State Emergency Operations Center received well over 800 missions in two weeks of response. This compares to just over 100 missions received in the January 2010 Ice Storm.


            The JFO is located in Nashville at the eastern side of Hickory Hollow Mall (Antioch) in the former J.C. Penney store. The JFO oversees the recovery phase of the disaster. This phase is notable for property damage assessment, determination of costs, application for disaster assistance and the provision of federal disaster assistance funds to individuals and governments.


  • FEMA has registered almost 60,000 people and approved almost $128 million worth of federal aid. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers recovery assistance to companies and small businesses and has already approved loans to individuals and businesses for almost $16 million.
  • Three roads remain closed in West Tennessee due to flooding (SR104 west of Dyersburg, SR79 in Lake County and SR221 west of Humboldt), and one road (SR7 northwest of Columbia) is closed in two places indefinitely for repairs.
  • Several railroads are still out of service for repairs on certain rail lines including CSX, R.J. Corman, Tennessee Southern, West Tennessee, KWT and Southern Central Railroads. Metro Transit Authority is running with loaned buses from Cincinnati. All airports are open.


          The Logistics Support Area in Lavinia and Smyrna Logistics Support Area were operated by the Tennessee Army National Guard and sent bottled water to many counties:  Benton, 62 pallets; Cheatham, 154; Clay, 10; Davidson, 2,766; Decatur, 8; DeKalb, 5; Gibson, 22; Hickman, 387; Perry, 43; and Stewart, 3. This is a total of just almost 3,500 pallets of water shipped. A full pallet of water is approximately 150 gallons.




              The President has approved the following counties in a disaster declaration, bringing the total counties approved to 48. The list includes Benton, Campbell, Cannon, Carroll, Cheatham, Chester, Clay, Crockett, Davidson, Decatur, DeKalb, Dickson, Dyer, Fayette, Gibson, Giles, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, Henderson, Henry, Hickman, Houston, Humphreys, Jackson, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lewis, Macon, Madison, Marshall, Maury, McNairy, Montgomery, Perry, Pickett, Robertson, Rutherford, Obion, Shelby, Smith, Stewart, Sumner, Tipton, Trousdale, Wayne, Williamson and Wilson. A total of 52 counties were initially requested for the federal disaster declaration to which 4 more were added.


Ms. Gracia Szczech is the Federal Coordinating Officer who heads the FEMA JFO.


Previous Events History

APRIL 13, 2010 - EAST TENNESSEE Rockslides - Economic Disaster

A new proclamation by the Governor was announced on April 9, 2010 due to a rockslide on US Highway 129 in Blount County and US Highway 441 in Sevier County. The economic impact of these closures has a dramatic effect on the communities in Tennessee. These rockslides are in addition to the those that have already closed some highways. On January 19, rock and debris slid onto US 64 at mile marker 10.9 near Maddens Branch in Polk County. The roadway was already closed due to another rockslide that happened November 10, 2009 at mile marker 17.6 at TVA Ocoee Dam No. 2. On February 9 another proclamation was issued to recognize the severe strains being placed on residents near Ducktown due to a slide. The proclamations are a technical step in a process to obtain federal emergency relief funds to pay for the clean-up of the rockslides. The emergency precedes receipt of Small Business Administration assistance and other potential assistance from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

JUNE 20, 2006 - SWEETWATER Train Derailment

          A Norfolk-Southern Railroad train consisting of 84 cars, including 2 tanker cars carrying  liquid propane gas, partially derailed 21 cars in dense fog at approximately 1:30 am on Tuesday, June 20, 2006, between Sweetwater and Philadelphia, Tennessee. Also derailed were four other tank cars, one carrying methyl methacrylate, one carrying propylene oxide, one carrying carbon dioxide and one empty tank car with methyl chloride residue.  The derailment occurred near the intersection of Highway 11 and Fish Hatchery Road just 2 miles north of the Sweetwater city limits.

          Emergency responders were more concerned since liquid propane is flammable and highly explosive, methyl methacrylate is flammable and toxic, propylene oxide is flammable and potentially an explosion hazard and carbon dioxide is a frostbite and suffocation hazard for handlers or responders.  Methyl chloride could be a flammable and toxic hazard, even though one car contained only residue. The accident was handled well, and there were no leaks or spills in the derailment. HEPACO, Incorporated of Charlotte, North Carolina and Hulcher Services of Denton, Texas were contracted to provide a safe off-load. The Tennessee Highway Patrol provided a helicopter for aerial survey.

           The Incident Commander (IC) was Monroe County Sheriff Doug Watson.  The incident command post was set up in the Memorial Gardens Cemetery on Highway 11 due to space and proximity. In a perfect example of teamwork the Sweetwater Police Chief and the Monroe County Emergency Management Director supported the incident in a classic NIMS/MACS effort. The Tennessee Highway Patrol sent a supervisor and two troopers for security, while the Tennessee Department of Transportation provided rail transportation liaisons. A HAZMAT team from Blount County Emergency Management Agency was standing by at the ICP.  The IC Public Information Officer was a volunteer who provided information from the scene for release from the SEOC in Nashville. 

          The IC evacuated all persons within a half mile radius and by noon some 65 men, women and children were sheltered at Sweetwater High School.  Several businesses are also included within the evacuation area.  The ICP coordinated with the Sweetwater Hospitial for any person who wanted to speak to a person at the shelter.  

          The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided a team to investigate the accident.

          Some rail cars were remounted on the rails, but for safety the two propane cars were off-loaded before attempting a remount of the rails.  The accident scene was cleaned up in 24 hours, except for the butane car which took longer due to the need for a special railcar tanker.


This incident is a classic example of the Tennessee Incident Management System at work, a great job by the emergency responders.

D. Smith, EAO, TEMA

June 21, 2006


FEBRUARY 22, 1978 - WAVERLY, TENNESSEE Train Derailment, Hazardous Material and Explosion

[NOTE:  There are mistakes in some publications regarding this accident, including errors in the number of people killed and injured, the number of rail cars involved, the propane explosion magnitude and even the date of the accident.  For example, in the Federal Register, Vol. 62, Number 159, August 18, 1997, the accident date is recorded as “1973,” an incorrect year (correct date being February 22, 1978) that has been compounded throughout the country and the world by references.  The summary below is a revision of the official version which itself once had some inaccuracies, such as the name of the railroad!  The report is made more accurate by incorporating footnotes.]  

          Modern emergency response tactics were drastically changed when a train derailed in Waverly, Tennessee killing 16 persons and injuring 43, some with horribly severe burns.  (Vanderbilt University/CBS Evening News)  The derailment happened at 10:30 on the night of February 22, 1978, but the explosions actually occurred two days later.  According to one source, the blast(s) followed “a series of poor decisions by railroad officials and public safety commanders that indicated a profound ignorance of the immense risks the responders faced” (Crichlow).  It is true that technical education and safe tactical procedures across all responding organizations had not been fully instituted by that time, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators complimented the Town of Waverly for its coordination of the response. (NTSB)  Since then, “the fire service and other public safety services have … reconfigured their response to emergencies” (Crichlow). 

           A westbound Louisville and Nashville (L&N) freight train was pulling through Waverly, the county seat of Humphreys County, a small town of approximately 5,000 persons (TEMA), when a brake shoe became overheated and caused a high carbon train wheel to break (De la Cruz).  The wheel broke on the 17th car of the 92-car train, which caused the car to jump off the track and to pull 23 other cars off the tracks, including 2 Liquid Propane Gasoline (LPG) cars, each of 30,000 gallons size (TEMA).  The derailment was not far from the center of town (TEMA). 

         The initial responders were the Waverly Police Department and the Waverly Fire Department.  When the first responders reported to the scene, no one knew what they were facing (DGI).  They arrived without gas detection devices, but found the LPG tank cars in the wreckage, one actually under other rail cars.  They relied on visual observation (at night) to decide that there were no leaks and made an incorrect assumption that the cars were double-walled (TEMA).  As a routine precaution, they determined to evacuate a nearby home and a custodial care unit, and at the instructions of the fire chief notified the Tennessee Office of Civil Defense (TOCD). They thought there were no hazardous materials involved and reported that information (TEMA). 

          By 5:10 on Thursday morning though, the report was changed and a state HAZMAT team was dispatched led by West Region Director Ron Collins.  The team arrived within two hours and agreed that the fire department was correct to set up master streams on the tanks to keep them cool if the day began to warm up.  Additional evacuations were ordered in a one quarter mile radius, and electrical and natural gas service to the area was shut off (TEMA). 

          Later that morning L&N crews began to arrive to begin clearing the debris and to reopen the tracks.  Temperatures had been in the 20’s and had not warmed very much during the day.  There was about a half inch of snow still on the ground.  A cable sling was placed around the weakened LPG car under other cars, and it was pulled 12 feet east to remove it from the tracks, a job finished by 2:15 pm. 

         The line was reopened to limited traffic by 8:00 pm that evening, and L&N requested a team to off-load the LPG from the two derailed tank cars (TEMA). At around 1:00 pm on Friday, February 24th, a semi-trailer and tanker truck arrived with an experienced supervisor and crew to start the offload process.  The crew went to lunch and the removal was to begin when they returned.  This day saw clear skies and a lot of sunshine and temperatures quickly rose to the mid-50’s. 

          The crew returned from lunch and tested for leaks with gas detection equipment.  No leaks were discovered from either tank car (TEMA). 

         By mid-afternoon on Friday, the off-loading crew had started to move its equipment into place to begin the process.  On the scene were the Waverly Fire Chief and a fire crew, the Waverly Police Chief, and the two-man TOCD HAZMAT Team (TEMA). 

         At approximately 2:58 pm, vapor was observed leaking from one of the tank cars.  Almost immediately a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE) occurred (TEMA).  The damaged tank could apparently no longer stand the increasing pressure from the sunshine on the tanker (Burke).  An explosion immediately killed six persons and eliminated the on-scene firefighting capability.  The Waverly fire chief (Wilbur York) was one of these.  

         A minute later, a seriously injured TOCD HAZMAT Team member (John White) radioed the TOCD office to report the explosion and to report that his team mate (Mark Belyew) was missing (TEMA). 

         Seventeen minutes after the BLEVE, the entire LPG tank car exploded (Vanderbilt University/CBS Evening News). The car was nearly full containing 28,000 gallons of LPG. (OHMS)  This explosion propelled debris and parts of the tanker in several different directions.  Sixteen buildings and multiple vehicles were totally destroyed in the flames as were many persons who had not left the area and 20 other buildings were partially engulfed or damaged (TEMA).  Ten more people would eventually die, including the Waverly Police Chief (Guy Barnett) (TEMA). 

        “When liquid propane is released into the atmosphere, it quickly vaporizes into its normal state and forms ignitable fuel-air mixtures.”  This vapor cloud burns very rapidly, “characterized by some experts as explosive” (Federal Register).  The explosion and fires in the surrounding area resulted in over $1.8 million worth of property damage (Estabrooks). 

         For the next several hours, over 250 emergency vehicles from 39 counties poured into Waverly to assist in putting out fires and caring for the injured.  The number of injured eventually totaled 43 people. 

         An evacuation out to a one mile radius was ordered in case the second tank car exploded. 

         The Tennessee Army National Guard sent support personnel and opened the armory for use as a shelter.  (TEMA) At 7:00 pm that evening all of the fires had been contained and mutual aid units were sent home.  Local officials began an extensive search for casualties which then had to be called off due to poor visibility.  The search resumed the next morning at 5:30. 

         Burn victims were transported to Nashville for stabilization and then on to Louisville, Birmingham and Cincinnati by February 25th  (TEMA). 

         At 3:15 pm on Saturday a rail car loaded with paper products reignited and burst into flames, but it was quickly put out.  Transfer of the second LPG rail car began and was completed by 10:30 pm.  The newly loaded car was taken to Jackson, its original destination. 

         Residents were allowed to return to their homes on the morning of the 26th and the armory shelter was closed by noon (TEMA). 

          The Waverly disaster was the turning point for emergency response disasters in reducing risks to responders.  New techniques were introduced for firefighters after the NTSB investigation was completed (Benner).  Governor Ray Blanton, in response to the identified shortcomings, ordered the creation of the Tennessee Hazardous Materials Institute and charged TEMA with providing instruction and validation of skills.  TEMA developed standards and a training program for hazardous materials responders in the state which became a model for the nation. 

         The Tennessee General Assembly soon passed sweeping legislation to create one of the strongest emergency management laws in the nation, “Disasters, Emergencies and Civil Defense” (TCA 58-2-101 to TCA 58-2-124) and established the all new Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, retiring the old Office of Civil Defense. 

         John White became director of TEMA in 1994 and served until his retirement in 2003.  A new Communications Annex in Nashville was named for Mark Belyew as a tribute for his service to the citizens of Tennessee.    


Prepared by Donnie K. Smith

Executive Administration Officer

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

(present in Waverly when the explosion occurred

as Admin. Asst. to the Adjutant General,

Department of Military)


Benner, Ludwig, Jr., “The Story of GEBMO (General Hazardous Materials Behavior Model),” 2001, NTSB Investigator article updated, February 2, 2007. 

Burke, Robert, “Weyauwega Wisconsin Propane Fire,” HAZMAT Zone,, July, 1996. 

Crichlow, Douglas, “Taking a Comprehensive Approach to Handling Disasters, American City and County Magazine, Prism Business Media, Inc., Atlanta, GA, June 1, 1997 

De la Cruz, Bonna, “Edwards has Represented Big as Well as Little Guys,” The Tennessean, July 8, 2004. 

DGI Daily (Dangerous Goods International),, Yukon, OK, September 23, 2003. 

Estabrooks, Bates, “Real Transport Safety Issues,”,” November 19, 2001. 

Federal Register, Volume 62, Number 159, Docket No. RSPA-97-2133 (HM-225), 49 CFR Part 171, Office of Hazardous Materials Technology, Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), Department of Transportation, Washington, DC, August 18, 1997. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Investigation, NTSB-RAR-79-1, February 8, 1979.

Office of Hazardous Material Safety (OHMS), Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 2133.htm.  

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), “The Waverly Explosion,”, February 22, 1978. 

Vanderbilt University/CBS Evening News, Television News Archive, Morton Dean and Martha Teichner, “Train Derailments / Florida / Tennessee,”, Sunday, February 26, 1978.


DECEMBER 9, 1911 - BRICEVILLE, TENNESSEE - Cross Mountain Coal Mine Explosion 

“An explosion and toxic gases (afterdamp) formed from it caused the death of 84 men and boys in a coal mine in Anderson County, Tennessee. Five men were rescued. The Cross Mountain Mine Disaster was the 36th worst in the history of mining in the United States. When [compared to] the Fraterville Mine Disaster, Coal Creek is the third worst mine disaster site in the history of mining in the United States.”  (Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, History of the Coal Creek Watershed, “Cross Mountain Mine Disaster of 1911.”) Mouth-breathing self-rescuer equipment, demonstrated at Cross Mountain, became standard equipment for miners after that.

“Briceville, Tenn., Dec. 11 – “Five men had been brought alive from the Cross Mountain mine at 11 o’clock tonight, and rescuers at that time were making almost frantic efforts to reach at least three more whom they believe still are alive.

“These men had been prisoners in the workings since Saturday morning, when an explosion entombed more than 100 men….Immediately after the explosion they rushed to Cross Entry 19, where they quickly threw up a brattice that kept out the black damp which killed many of their fellow workmen.  They took their lunch pails with them and the three subsisted for three days and two nights upon what they expected to make their Saturday noon meal….

“The rescuers are encountering great obstacles in penetrating the cross sections and it is feared that even should more be alive in the far recesses of the working it will be impossible to reach them before they starve.

“Mayor Thomas Watts of Coal Creek, five miles from Briceville, issued today an appeal to Mayors of all cities for financial aid for the mine sufferers.  His appeal reads:

There are about 125 families in Briceville suffering from the Cross Mountain coal mine disaster.  Help in funds is greatly needed, and we appeal to all American citizens to help us…

“A local Red Cross camp began work for the relief of the suffering this forenoon.  It is estimated the explosion rendered 56 women widows and made 184 children orphans.

“Many theories are advanced as to the cause of the accident.  [Mine President] Stephenson said it probably had been caused by a shot [intentional mining blast] which ignited gases accumulated in one of the many rooms in the mine or might have set off the coal dust on the floor…”  (New York Times.  “Find 5 Men Alive in Wrecked Mine – Workers Entombed at Briceville, Tenn., by Saturday’s Explosion Were Not Hurt,” December 12, 1911 (Tuesday)


DECEMBER 16, 1811 - MARCH 25,1812 - WEST TENNESSEE, Major Earthquakes 



















Prepared by

              Donnie K. Smith, TEMA

October 15, 2007



of the

New Madrid Earthquakes




     The New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) extends southward 150 miles from Cairo, Illinois down the Mississippi River to Dyersburg, Tennessee.  Today this area includes the metropolitan populations of St. Louis and Memphis.  Along the line is a series of geological rifts running through the Mississippi River Valley.  These rifts are in the middle of a geological plate, not on the edge where most earthquakes occur.  In 1811 a “bubble” began to rise near the frontier town of  New Madrid, Missouri not far north of Tiptonville, Tennessee.  When it burst the pressure was not fully relieved for years.  The earthquakes came in heavy waves, and there were a lot of them.  It is difficult today to imagine the catastrophic effects, but there were nearly 2,000 quakes from November 16, 1811 to March 15, 1812. 13 


     The Richter Scale will be used where possible in this report since it is more accurate; however, it was not available in the 1800’s.1  When the Modified Mercalli Scale is used, the magnitude will be preceded with an “M.”  (See Appendix 1.)  The Mercalli scale suggests that the New Madrid earthquakes were larger than the 9.2 Richter Scale magnitude quake in Alaska in 1968, but there can be no certainty.  Some scientists say the quakes did not exceed 8.0 Richter magnitude, 21  but from the collected damage reports it is likely that the shocks were greater than that.  There will probably never be a definitive answer since events became confused by many witnesses over time and blended together.  Some witnesses were not careful in delineating the events on the proper date.  Other witnesses were in shock, were victims of exposure, or were not educated and were at a loss to understand what was going on.  Many people ascribed the events to a comet or to “the end of the world.”13


     The catastrophe is more difficult to imagine since it actually involved thousands of emergencies of differing degree occurring simultaneously over many months.  For ease of understanding, most authorities divide the New Madrid disaster into three catastrophic peaks. 5



December 16, 1811


     There was no known advance warning of the first quake for settlers, river travelers, or Indians in the NMSZ.  Probably, no one knew about a flash of greenish-white light which had crossed over the sky in Southern Canada and disappeared a month earlier on November 16th.  It was too far away to warn them, but the phenomenon is now recognized as electrostatic sparks caused from the friction of fast moving rock grains.  While most people in the area were asleep, the cataclysm began at 2:15 in the early morning of December 16, 1811.  The severity of the initial shock was awful (M-8.1 to M-9), but it was the first of some 40 strong quakes to occur before the end of the next day.  Houses danced and chimneys fell.  There were heavy rumblings and loud thunder; there were loud hollow and vibrating noises; there were violent wind noises; and there were sudden explosions of water.  Fissures appeared in the ground everywhere so that not an acre existed without a crack; ejections of mud, water, sand and stone coal or lignite were thrown into the air some 90-100 feet, a process called earthquake dewatering,16 and in some places whole trees were thrown in the air.  There was riverbed disruption in the Mississippi with lifting and falling water, waterfalls and rapids, and along the sides of the river large waterspouts jumped from the ground.  Explosive cratering caused a thick and heavy fog filled with sulphurous vapor to hang in the air and the atmosphere was choked with dust and smoke for a week, an ugly haze through which the sun shone as reddish-bronze.  Many places were almost entirely deluged by the river while other areas emptied of water.  Once the initial shock took place repetitions of heavy earthquakes rolled every 15 minutes to an hour for five days. 13 


     The first shock was so huge that 1200 miles away in Southern Canada4 a fierce grinding sound was felt and a shuddering or jarring of the bones and setting the teeth on edge was felt just 15 minutes after the shock at New Madrid.  Even in Canada creek banks caved in, trees toppled, and the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie danced.  The shake caused great waves to break onto shore although there was no wind. 

Tremendous boulders broke loose, rapidly running streams stopped and eddied while some went dry, other streams were created where there were none before, and ponds appeared in various places.24


     In the Indiana Territory and parts of Kentucky settlers were thrown from their beds, timbers of their cabins were wrenched apart, bricks crumbled, cliff sides slipped and fell into ravines, and bridges snapped and tumbled into rivers and creeks. 22   Forty-five minutes after the shock at the epicenter, houses shook in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Norfolk, Virginia causing the residents to wake and run out of bed.  Bells in church towers rang in Philadelphia and tremors were felt in Washington, DC, but in Richmond, Virginia, the concussion was so violent that clocks stopped and suspended things oscillated violently.  Savannah, Georgia experienced a meteoric flash of light followed by a rattling noise.  Tremors also reached New Orleans, Louisiana; Savannah, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; some parts of new England; and parts of Quebec.13  


     In New Madrid the day started out with Indian Summer temperatures of around 45 degrees, but the temperatures began to fall and by the third week of January, the Ohio River had frozen over.13    When the 11th shock came, the pulverized earth gave way at the river and the whole town went under water.13   For 150 miles up and down the river, sulphurated gases blasted and tainted the air and so strongly impregnated the water that for days it could hardly be used.7  The entire New Madrid population of men, women, and children lost any homes they still had standing.  It was at that time that most of them gave up on staying and began walking barefoot and naked away from the area even though they had collected no food or money and very few other belongings.  The lower temperatures simply made life more miserable for the survivors. 13 


     Downriver of Little Prairie, Missouri, tremendous volumes of ground water were squeezed out by liquefaction which in turn drained into the river and caused a rapid rise in water level and a swifter current than normal.  The falling of the riverbanks into the stream, in some places as much as 30-40 acres at a time, caused a terrific rush of water to the other side of the river and may have contributed to the perception at this time that the river was running backwards.  Only in one place below New Madrid did the lifting of the riverbed cause the river to run backwards for a short distance.  The retrograde current was terrible, but it was nothing like the colossal and violent rebound velocity.  On the return, trees that had sunk and mired into the silt on the river’s bottom were suddenly thrust loose and were tossed or floated to the top clogging the river and even jamming passage in the narrower parts.  Other trees were thrown from the banks into the river.  The broad stream was a frantic mess and a navigation nightmare.  Boatmen were obliged at terrific speeds to ride the crest of a churning morass.  Much of the land over 30,000 square miles had lowered by 6-15 feet and at the same time other areas were raised by that height.  Vertical displacement of 3-6 feet was the norm, and there were places where the lateral displacement was up to 30 feet.  Some locations had a range of magnitude so horrifying and “off the scale” that it is difficult to imagine what happened over the epicenter. 13  


     At 5:00 am on the 17th another horrendous shock blasted the area (M-7.1) interspersed with lesser ones.  Another series of strong shocks occurred at 11:30 am, and succeeding quakes never really stopped; they just decreased in intensity. 16  Over the next 6 days there were over 100 shocks. 13


     New Madrid, near the epicenter, was pounded.  It had become the Gateway to the Mississippi and seemed to be growing into the “St. Louis” of its time.  It was a thriving location for riverboats and fur traders as a layover on the way down the Mississippi River to Memphis and New Orleans.  The founder, George Morgan, intended the area to be the source of goods for the King of Spain, so to encourage the crown to support the concept, the town was named after the Spanish capitol.  In 1811 New Madrid boasted a population of some 4000 persons.  It was an impressive site for the times, and it was built on banks some 26 feet above the waterline which appeared to be high enough to prevent flooding (this proved to be wrong).  By 1817 though, it was obvious that the course of history had been irrevocably changed for the city.  No one would stop at New Madrid after the earthquakes.  The earthquakes had made an impression too deep and devastating on the people.  They were unashamedly afraid of the area. 13


     The quakes continued unabated through December and January, often with large ones interspersed.  On one day, December 22, 1811, Louisville, Kentucky had 3 critical shocks, 2 severe, 3 serious and 79 others of various types.  A large shock at 2 am on December 23rd surprised the town of Big Prairie, Missouri and totally destroyed it.  At the same time, all the houses in Little Prairie near present day Caruthersville were “thrown down” as well.  By the 12th of January Louisville had registered another critical shock and 150 tremors.  On January 19th, all on the same day, Louisville received 65 more tremors. 13


     The ice cracked in the river with tremors at Annapolis, Maryland at 9:44 pm on January 22nd panicking skaters.  Not only that, but clocks stopped, and the state house steeple scarily swayed back and forth 6 to 8 feet.  At 11:00 pm that night, Baltimore, Maryland reported lightning and sounds similar to a hot iron in snow. 13 


January 23, 1812


     New Madrid caught it again at 8:15 am on January 23, 1812 with a M-7.8 quake and another at 9:00 am.  Although the intensity was slightly less, these earthquakes were just as violent as the earlier quakes. 20  The ground warped, ejections occurred, fissures were created, and severe landslides caved off stream banks.  This set of quakes also broke up the ice jam in Louisville.  Communities as far away as New York reported shakes.  Long Island discovered hanging objects swinging back and forth.  Cincinnati had a severe shock.  Richmond reported doors and windows flapping, chairs rocking, and furniture moving back and forth.  Charleston reported a shock, vibrations, cracked pavement, walls and plaster.  The vibrations and shakes continued through the next day.  On January 26th Louisville received 1 most severe quake, 1 severe quake, 7 serious quakes and 82 others. 13


At 9 am on January 27th New Madrid received another heavy shock.  A tremor was felt in Montreal, Canada on January 30th.   On February 2nd, Louisville received 1 most severe shock, 4 serious, and 204 other tremors.  Washington, DC reported a minor quake on February 4th, the same day as New Madrid’s next heavy shock.  On February 4th New York reported rumbling and short intervals of giddiness. 13



February 7, 1812


     Usually, aftershocks are less intense than the first shock, but this cataclysm was different.  The final explosion was of even greater magnitude than anything before. 13  The quake was estimated to be M-8.0 to M-11 and two more huge shocks followed it.13 There were loud heavy cannon noises and a violent agitation. 7  There were numerous shocks every few minutes, some heavy, but the following evening just after sunset New Madrid received another heavier shock which was followed by nine more25  The ground failure that resulted from these earthquakes was severe, in fact among the largest in the world.  The earth rolled in waves a few feet in height and the swells burst into geysers spreading sand over large areas.  The ground pushed up huge dike widths of several yards and opened up fissure lengths from 100 yards to miles. 7  The river banks gave way, sank and geysers shot up throwing trees 100 feet in the air, many falling back to be replanted in the ground.  In some places where there was no liquid, 10-15 feet high columns of pulverized carbon filled the atmosphere with an acrid dust.  More sand volcanoes erupted and black showers fell back to earth along with the white sand after a loud whistling and roaring disorder. 25    In one location, the Pennicot River was diverted through a fissure. 7  The water turned black as coal dust.13  Then, the land began sinking, trees began falling in from the bank again, and the banks themselves were caving in.    The ground motion created tsunami-like effects that swamped boats, and fresh water liquefaction caused an immense rush of water into the river from the woods in one place. 7  Elastic rebound accounted for subsidence of several meters to return to pre-earthquake levels in many places, but one island (number 94) was sunk along with a band of river pirates.24  The quake disrupted the riverbed again, causing as much as 30 feet slip displacement and 12 feet drop which created a waterfall or rapids on the Kentucky Bend and the Bend’s western limb (described as two dreadful waterfalls with a great suction equal to the rapids in the Ohio River), with the river falling in a 23 feet descent over 2 miles.  Another falls developed to the south and created several whirls with considerable “suck.”  Two flow barriers were created at the same time.  Meanwhile, a large river seiche was produced upstream of the New Madrid Bend area 7 caused by the rise of the riverbed 7-10 miles north of New Madrid.  This retrograde current was matched downstream a kilometer from New Madrid where the riverbed also lifted several yards.  In both of these locations, the Mississippi River flowed backwards and created a turbulent wave in the opposite direction.13  The shocks on February 7th caused as much damage as all of the previous ones combined.23    


     Events similar to those in December were repeated in Northeastern Arkansas when the riverbed lifted at 2:15 am near Tiptonville Dome.  There, the river temporarily reversed course, an effect that was exacerbated by the banks falling in.13  Witnesses saw acres of riverbank crash into the channel in huge columns which raised swells 7-8 feet high.  These waves rose up high like a wall and beat furiously on the riverbanks.  When the undulations or land swells burst, they threw up water, sand and charcoal covered with sulphur.  The earth was covered with holes that resembled craters of volcanoes, some 30 feet in diameter, encircled with rings of white sand in the black topsoil and more carbonized wood or coal.10   The damage and the “felt” areas in the Mississippi Valley were 100 times greater than those in western North America (i.e., California and Nevada).15   Magnitudes in the St. Francis River area exceeded M-10 and entered the M-11 range.  Magnitude in the White River area and for Mississippi River Islands 30-40 was M-10.  Elsewhere, northeastern Arkansas generally experienced magnitude M-11.13


     New Madrid was finished at 3:45 am, with the area dropping nearly 14 feet.23  The town was then totally flooded, even though the water later receded.  No matter, no one came back for years.  Over the succeeding days, the earth continued to slowly subside until the spring floods swallowed the town once more.  Reelfoot’s scarp was permanently uplifted, and after subsidence near Tiptonville of 5 to 20 feet, water began to rush into the area to create Reelfoot Lake.  At the same time, the earthquake created Lake Isom to the immediate south, now a national wildlife refuge area.  Arkansas experienced a 5 to 8 feet drop at Lake St. Francis in the eastern part of the state, and water levels rose by 25-30 feet there.13


     The colossal quake rang church bells in Boston and a rumble was felt in Washington, DC.  Houses were severely damaged in St. Louis, and chimney tops fell down in Cincinnati.  Chimneys fell and treetops were much agitated in Richmond, and a severe shock was felt in Augusta, breaking glass in the windows of homes. 13


     Between February 8th and February 12th, every  15-20 minutes, there were continuous shocks and rumbling in the New Madrid area.  There were frequent eruptions of sand, stone, coal and water, craters 12-50 feet across and 5-10 feet down to the water.  Several rapids were created in the Mississippi—one set 7 miles below New Madrid and according to one testimony more dangerous than the previous ones. 13


     On February 9th, Louisville reported 180 more earthquakes, of which 3 were most severe, 5 severe and 7 serious.  At the same time during one of the severe shocks, clocks stopped, brick buildings were cracked, and furniture was agitated in Savannah, Georgia.  Another large quake was felt in New Madrid on February 10th and Savannah experienced undulation of the earth and a severe and tremendous quake.  Another one occurred on February 11th at New Madrid.  By February 16th Louisville had reported 86 more quakes, of which 3 were serious and 6 moderate or jarring.  Richmond received a shock at dawn on February 18th.  New York was hit by very violent shocks and flashes of light at  4 am on February 21st followed by a slighter shock.  On February 23rd Louisville received 292 quakes, 4 in the serious category.   On February 26th at 2:15 am Little Prairie, Missouri was permanently destroyed, leaving only the rubble to bounce in later shocks.   No one came back.13 



     Although the worst was over by the end of February, it should not be assumed that everything was totally calm.    Earthquakes continued off and on each day for months.  On March 1st, Louisville reported on that single day 139 quakes, 1 of which was serious and 4 moderate.  On March 8th, there were 58 more, of which 2 were serious and 9 moderate.  On March 15th there were 221 quakes, of which 2 were serious and 3 moderate quakes. 13 


     On March 25th newspapers in Lexington, Kentucky published, in what may have been a comprehensive damage report, that a road to the port of Arkansas by Spring River had been completely destroyed, that chasms of great depth and length had appeared, that swamps had become dry and others had become deep lakes, and that hills had disappeared. 13 


     The next day, though, the Lexington Clarion Ledger reported 10,000 residents had been killed by an earthquake in Caracus and La Guaira, Venezuela.  The number was later revised to be 20,000 killed.3


     New Madrid had been pounded certainly with  1,874 shocks in a 3 month period, but the actual number was likely over 2,000.  Only the quakes felt in Louisville, Kentucky were being counted. 13  


     After the horrid months of December 1811 to March 1812,  large aftershocks continued with less frequency until 1817. 6  The area somewhat settled down after that, registering only one serious shock at New Madrid on January 4, 1843, estimated to be a 6.3 magnitude and fifty two years later, another one in Charleston, South Carolina on October 31, 1895, estimated to be a 6.6 or 6.7 on the Richter scale21.  An earthquake between Charleston, Mississippi and Batesville, Mississippi knocked over chimneys and bookcases and was felt in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.2  Another  quake registering 5.5 magnitude shook New Madrid on October 21, 1965.  A 5.4 magnitude earthquake toppled tombstones and cracked foundations in southeastern Illinois on November 9, 1968. 8   The last tremor registered at New Madrid was a 2.6 magnitude on    September 3, 2007. 21


     The NMSZ is really an anomaly and scientists still debate about it.  Most earthquakes occur at the edge of seismic plates, but the NMSZ is actually in the middle of a plate!  “We don’t know why we have earthquakes at New Madrid,” says Bob Hermann, Professor of Geophysics, at St. Louis University.14  Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, though, believes an old glacier is at the source of the problem.   Twenty thousand years ago, the glacial ice sheet crept as far south as the middle of Illinois, but it was “big enough and thick enough” to strain the Earth several hundred miles to the south.  He explains that “at the edge of the glacier, the Earth bent like a mattress will slope under a body’s weight,” and this effect almost broke the plate through.  Now that the Earth’s climate is warmer and the glacier has melted, the earth is rebounding and will continue to do so for the next 10,000 years.  This rebounding effect is what causes the earthquakes.5


     Surprisingly, the NMSZ earthquakes were more intense that earthquakes elsewhere.  Seismologist David Stewart reported that during these quakes, the damage spread over 15-20 states.  He found that ground in the east reacted differently to earthquakes than those in the west.  When the ground shakes in the east, he said, the potential for destruction and loss of life is greater.17  The ground at New Madrid is older, colder and more rigid and spreads the effects of an earthquake well.5  In fact, all eastern geology is older and simpler with fewer faults to slow quake waves.  The ground is drier and propagates waves more efficiently.17 


     Many scientists think we have more earthquakes due in the NMSZ.9  There is repetitive evidence of current seismic activity and more recent studies have shown a history of disasters in this geologic area.  Each successive tremor could be the precursor for the next cataclysm.  Even if another earthquake in this area is less powerful by a magnitude of one or two below that in 1811-1812, the huge population now present in the NMSZ will present us a disaster no longer totaling just a few hundred persons.2   The next New Madrid earthquakes could easily become the new “worst disaster in history.

Appendix 1


There are two scales by which to measure the magnitude of earthquakes, both of which are referenced in this report.  They are the Modified Mercalli Scale, invented in 1902-03 by Giuseppi Mercalli6  and the Richter Scale, developed in 1934-35 by Charles F. Richter. 1 

The Richter Scale, which depends entirely on seismographic instruments, is used by scientists today since it is the most accurate means of determining earthquake magnitude and intensity.  Each point on the Richter scale is roughly a tenfold (10 times) the previous level in amplitude; however, the next point on the scale in energy is 31-32 times more than the preceding whole number.There is no upper limit on the Richter Scale, but there are no recorded earthquakes greater than ten.20

The Modified Mercalli Scale is used for the 1811-1812 series of earthquakes since the Richter Scale had not yet been invented.  The Mercalli is less scientific since it depends upon eye witness reports.11  The Modified Mercalli Scale is shown below1:


Descriptive Name


Richter Scale



Not felt except by a very few under especially favorable circumstances. Recordable only with a seismograph.

1 to 2



Felt only by a few persons at rest, especially on upper floors of buildings. Delicately suspended objects may swing.

2 to 3



Felt quite noticeably indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings, but many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibration like a passing truck. Duration estimated.

3 to 4



During the day felt indoors by many, outdoors by few. At night some awakened. Dishes, windows, and doors disturbed; walls make creaking sound. Sensation like a heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rock noticeably.



Rather Strong

Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows, etc., broken; a few instances of cracked plaster; unstable objects overturned. Disturbance of trees, poles, and other tall objects sometimes noticed. Pendulum clocks may stop.

4 to 5



Felt by all; many frightened and run outdoors. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster or damaged chimneys. Damage is light.

5 to 6


Very Strong

Everybody runs outdoors. Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction, slight to moderate in well built ordinary structures; considerable in poorly built or badly designed structures. Some chimneys broken. Noticed by persons driving motor cars.




Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable in ordinary substantial buildings, with partial collapse; great in poorly built structures. Panel walls thrown out of frame structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned. Sand and mud ejected in small amounts. Changes in well water. Persons driving motor cars disturbed.

6 to 7



Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb; great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations. Ground cracked conspicuously. Underground pipes broken.




Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations; ground badly cracked. Rails bent . Landslides considerable from river banks and steep slopes. Shifted sand and mud. Water splashed over banks.

7 to 8


Very Disastrous

Few, if any (masonry), structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipelines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly.




Damage total. Waves seen on ground surfaces. Lines of sight and level distorted. Objects thrown upward into the air.

> 8




1.                                                             About.Com, Inc., “Charles Richter—the Richter Magnitude Scale,” The New York Times Company,,2007.

2.                                                              American Museum of Natural History, “When Disaster Strikes,” Young Naturalist Awards of 1999, subparagraph, “New Madrid Fault Line,” undated.


3.  Clarion Ledger                             “Fault Zone Poses $3B Threat to Mississippi, Old Miss Study Says,”, Lexington, Kentucky, July 26, 2004.


4.  Coggins, Allen R.   “Earthquakes 1811-12“, Reelfoot Outdoors, The Tennessee Historical Society, new_madrid_earthquake. htm. 


5.  Dalton, Louisa                              Stanford University, Stanford News Service, Mark Swartz News Service, dept/news/pr/01/glacier37.html, March 7, 2001.


6.                                                             Fort Collins Emergency Management Agency, Fort Collins, Colorado, “The Modified Mercalli Scale,”, 1996-2007.


7.  Fuller, Myron L.                           “The New Madrid Earthquake,” US Geological Survey Bulletin 494, 1912.


8.  Kinerny, Butch                             “New USGS Map Highlights Central U.S. Earthquake History,” Science Daily , releases/2004/04/040412014909.htm, April 1, 2004.


9.  Logsdon, David R.                     I Was There! In the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12, Kettle Mills Press, Nashville, 1990


10.                                                          Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, “The Day the Mississippi Ran Backward,” Internet address,, (undated).


11.                                                          Nevada Seismological Laboratory, “What is Richter Magnitude?” ftp/pub/louie/class/100/ magnitude.html, February 4, 2005.


12.  Nuttli, Otto W.                          “The Mississippi Valley Earthquakes of 1811 and 1812,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Volume 63:1, February 1973.


13.  Penick, James L., Jr.                 The New Madrid Earthquakes, University of Missouri

                                                                                      Press, Columbia and London, 1981


14.  Rekenthaler, Doug                  “The Big One:  Looking Ahead to the Next New Madrid Earthquake,” Disasters/980624newmadrid/, sub-paragraph, “Looking to the Past for Clues to New Madrid Enigma,” October 8, 2004.


15.                                                          St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Monday, November 11, 1968, Volume 117, No. 115, page 3A.


16.  Schmidt, Laurie J.                   “Squeezing Water from Rock,” Earth Observatory, NASA Earth Science Enterprise Data and Services, Langley Atmospheric Sciences Data Center (DAAC), Study/Earthquake, Features, June 25, 2003.


17.  Smith, Donald                            “Still Waiting for the Big One on the Mississippi,” National Geographic, news/2000/12/1222 _newmadrid.html, Dec 22, 2000.


18.  Stover, Carl W. and               “Seismicity of the U. S. 1568-1989 (revised), U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527,

       Jerry L. Coffman                                            U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1993


19.  Street, Robert                             “A Contribution to the Documentation of the 1811-1812 Mississippi Valley Earthquake Sequence, Part I,” 1980, Department of Geology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, Earthquake Notes, Vol. 53, No.2, April-June 1982.


20.                                                          State Emergency Management Agency Website, State of Missouri, www.sema/state/mo/ ready.html, undated.


21.                                                          United States Geological Survey, Earthquake Hazards Program, “Magnitude

                                                                                      and Intensity,”,

                                                                                      U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS, November 8, 2004.


22.                                                          United States Geological Survey, neis/eq_depot/usa/ 1811-1812.html, (undated).


23.  Wood, Michele M.                   “Earthquake Magnitude Classes,” Michigan Technological University, UPSeis, Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences Department, upseis/magnitude.html, December 15, 2004.


24.  Yarrow, David                           “Panther Across the Sky:  Tecumseh and the New Madrid Earthquake, December, 1811,”        by  Chief Luther Standing Bear (1933),licon Graphics, ratville/Tecumseh.html, June 25, 1995.


25.  Gold, Thomas                             “Earthquakes, Gases, and Earthquake Prediction,” CU People, / pages/tg21/Earthq.html, , Cornell University, 1994.


26.  Patterson, Gary                         “Your Fault, My Fault, and the New Madrid Fault,”

                                                                                      Center for Earthquake Research and Information,

                                                                            , October 1998

27.  Metzger, Ann G. and             “Earthquake Risk in the New Madrid Seismic Zone,”      

Jill Stevens Johnston                                     University of Memphis,

                                                                                      geology/fault.html., October 1998