The story of the last big one is the stuff of legend in Tennessee: In the winter of 1812, when a series of massive earthquakes struck the Mississippi River valley, the shaking was so violent, folks say, that the mighty river ran backward for a time, and church bells and curtain tassels on the East Coast were set ringing and swaying.
Those who survived were left to wonder if the end of the world was upon them.
The cataclysm along the New Madrid fault dissolved into local lore and the perennial threat in this seismic zone in the central United States was largely forgotten — until Katrina.
These days, in Memphis and in many other places across the country that have predictable threats of disasters — from hurricane- and quake-prone stretches of the coasts to tornado alleys in the Plains, from Northwest towns where volcanoes loom to busy cities where terrorists could strike — talk has moved from the last big one to the next big one.
Katrina has revived scenarios of tornadoes landing on downtown Kansas City, of mud burying Tacoma, of a Category 5 hurricane wrecking Houston, of chemical agents released on the Las Vegas Strip, of wildfires sweeping Los Angeles.
Glimpse at the worst-case scenario
The images of destruction and suffering in New Orleans have chastened officials and average citizens, stretching their imaginations. Suddenly, those dusty worst-case scenarios, long unthinkable and almost theoretical, are plausible, frightening, and no longer ignored.
“I think people are going, ‘Will Memphis be next?’” said Ray Pohlman, who works at the corporate headquarters of Memphis-based AutoZone, the auto parts giant that occupies an eight-story building on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The threat seems more real today, he said, than it did last month.
Katrina showed the largest-scale natural disasters can and do happen, and that even with considerable warning and precaution, so much can still go wrong. And the hurricane has given tangible form to fears of a terrorist attack bigger than that of Sept. 11.
President Bush, in his Thursday night speech from New Orleans, announced that the Department of Homeland Security will undertake an immediate review of emergency plans in every major city in America. “This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina,” he said.
Politicians and emergency officials all over the country have pledged to reevaluate disaster plans and resources — after Katrina proved how easily law and order can be lost, how fragile and flawed the telephone infrastructure can be, how important it is to have food and water readily available, how the poor and disabled are especially vulnerable in a disaster.
Reconsidering the cavalry’s role
Another paramount lesson for many: The federal government cannot be counted on for immediate help. Localities and even individuals must have their own emergency plans.
“We can’t expect meaningful federal support to be on the ground providing provisions in an organized manner until probably the seventh day,” said Eric Holdeman, with the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management in Seattle. “Our emergency response system is geared toward everyday emergencies, not disasters ... People need to be able to help themselves.”
Others agreed an event as large as Katrina cannot be managed by any city or state alone. Tennessee’s capacity to house evacuees was spent completely by Katrina, as it absorbed about 20,000 people. What if, like New Orleanians, Memphis’ 650,000 residents suddenly needed somewhere else to go?
Fearing the worst in Dixie
Another quake of the magnitude of the 1812 temblor hitting Memphis could supplant Katrina as the country’s worst natural disaster. Most of downtown Memphis, made of brick and concrete, would fall. Bridges and highways would be shattered. Gas lines would rupture. And the Mississippi River, if already near flood stage, could put large parts of Arkansas underwater.
None of these predictions are new. But they’re real now.
Two states upriver, St. Louis suffered through a devastating flood only 12 years ago. The day Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, local emergency managers started reviewing flood plans in the area, which is also prone to tornadoes and is within the New Madrid seismic zone.
“It says it could happen here,” said St. Louis emergency director Gary Christmann.
New doubts in savvy L.A.
Los Angeles, which has been through earthquakes, wildfires, and riots, is as well prepared as any city for a large-scale disaster. All kinds of heavy equipment and a satellite communications system are available to Los Angeles County. Thousands of National Guard and California Highway Patrol officers are based in Los Angeles.
But Katrina made even officials there think again. They now recommend, for instance, that residents keep five to seven days of food and water on hand instead of the three days’ worth that were previously recommended.
Katrina turned to fiction the comforting idea that “Uncle Sam is going to ride to the rescue,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has written a report for the city on preparing for terrorism. “That’s the message to every city as a result of Katrina.”
There were other messages. After seeing New Orleans residents refuse to leave their homes, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he’d “get a court order, if we have to,” to get people out.
Bracing for the long haul
The mayor of Moore, Okla., Glenn Lewis, heard another message: Citizens, he said, should increase sevenfold the amount of food and supplies they store at home — three weeks’ worth, instead of the previously recommended three days’ — “after we saw the disaster in Louisiana.”
His town is in the heart of tornado country. A twister that hit Moore in October 1998 damaged more than 100 homes, and a massive tornado the following May did more than $1 billion in damage and killed about 40 people.
“You have to have a local plan,” Lewis said. “If you’ve got to wait on FEMA or the state and you don’t have a plan, you’re going to wait a long time. It will seem like forever.”
Self-sufficiency has been turned into a formal public awareness campaign in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom — based on the theme of “72 hours,” the amount of time he believes people should presume it will take for outside help to arrive in the event of a massive earthquake.
“What we’re asking people to do is to be prepared to take care of themselves and their families (for that length of time) ... so that we can focus on rescues, focus on putting fires out,” said Anne Marie Conroy, director of San Francisco’s Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security.
New focus on the poor, immobile
Disaster planning and infrastructure improvements are business as usual in the Bay Area. Even so, Katrina has helped officials focus their planning. Since Katrina, Conroy and others have shifted their thoughts to the problem of displaced citizens.
“Every time there’s a major event like the London bombings, the tsunami and now, Katrina, we always go back and revisit our plans,” Conroy said, “and we always go back and look at what went right and what went wrong .... and adjust our plans.”
Linda Johnson, who lives with her husband and two cats in a rented one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District, said Katrina has made her realize she needs to gather together in one accessible place her scattered disaster supplies.
“I think it’s really important for people to take advantage of this window of opportunity, when they’re so aware of what disasters can do to families,” she said. “Our family doesn’t own a car, so we would really need to connect with our friends and loved ones to make a plan for evacuation if we needed to.”
Volcanic threat looms over Northwest
Farther north, Washington state’s most populous cities, Seattle and Tacoma, live under the double threat of earthquakes and active volcanoes. Two of the country’s three most dangerous volcanoes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, are in Washington: Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. The latter erupted about 20 years ago, covering the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area in a blanket of ash. An eruption of Mount Rainier, scientists believe, could send a deadly mudflow down its slopes and could kill thousands.
“A lot of people probably question us, ‘Why do you spend so much time preparing for an event that might never happen?’” said Jody Woodcock with the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management. “My response is, ‘But it could happen.”’
Like the New Orleans flooding, an eruption of Mount Rainier, Woodcock said, “is something we really can’t comprehend.”
The last time such a mudflow — made of melted ice, dirt, rocks and debris, and called a lahar — came down Rainier was 500 years ago. It could happen again at any time, though residents would presumably have several days warning, as volcanic activity can be monitored.
If the mudflow was big enough it could reach Tacoma, but probably not Seattle, where the biggest threat is an earthquake. A strong quake shook Seattle in 2001.
After Katrina, local businesses and volunteers showed an increased awareness of disaster planning and response — flooding local agencies with offers to house evacuees and help in the relief effort. Woodcock and others hope they can tap into these newly discovered resources should a disaster befall the Puget Sound region. To be sure, they will be watching what goes on in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I think we’ll learn a lot from watching the recovery process,” Woodcock said, “seeing communities completely rebuild. I think emergency managers from around the world are going to be watching.”
Looking beyond Mother Nature
It is not just natural disasters for which Katrina has heightened preparations.
Officials in cities like Las Vegas look at the hurricane as a lesson for terrorism. Because of the city’s economic and cultural importance, and because known terrorists have visited the city before, Las Vegas is considered a likely target of a terrorist attack.
Before Katrina, however, Clark County Sheriff Bill Young did not consider what would happen if his police force, the state’s largest, was temporarily paralyzed as police were in New Orleans. Katrina also got him thinking about how few highways lead out of Las Vegas, that a sudden evacuation of automobiles would render the roads impassible. And he wondered how a massive earthquake in Los Angeles might affect his city, a likely destination for millions of hypothetical evacuees, now less hypothetical in his mind.
“I really hadn’t thought about it until now,” said Young. “They’d totally overrun this state. I think we’re going to have to factor in a few more things.”
Katrina illuminated more logistical holes in Nevada’s emergency plans. The war in Iraq has taken most of the state’s National Guard troops out of the country. Even still, Las Vegas is probably more prepared than many cities for a large-scale disaster.
‘Test ... beyond the breaking point’
Earlier this year, 78 local, state and federal agencies took part in a simulated chemical attack, called “Rotunda Thunda,” at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Strip. It was the second such exercise in two years. The first, called “Determined Promise,” was conducted in 2003.
“We threw the kitchen sink at southern Nevada,” said Clark County Emergency Manager Jim O’Brien. “The rationale was to test us beyond the breaking point. That was our Katrina.”
At the other side of the country, Linden, N.J., is part of an industrial corridor of chemical plants and oil refineries that some federal officials refer to as “the most dangerous two miles in America.”
The plants come within 30 yards of public roads and are generally protected by nothing more than chain-link fence. Tucked in between these plants are people’s homes. According to a study earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service, there are seven chemical plants in New Jersey where a terrorist attack or accident could kill more than 1 million people.
Since the hurricane hit, acting New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey has met with state police and other agencies to review their terrorism plans.
Helen Pointek, 88, lives across the street from a refinery. Katrina, she said, has made her wonder what would happen if a plant was breached by accident or by an act of terrorism.
“I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “At my age, I probably would just drop dead. I do worry about those tanks.”
Short attention spans
But memories are short. A disaster like Katrina doesn’t necessarily make people fearful in the long term, even if it should.
“The capacity people have to adjust and make peace with a new situation, even if they feel vulnerable, is really remarkable,” said Randy Quevillon, chair of the psychology department and the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota.
And for many in this country, comfort comes in the knowledge that it’s a big place and you can always go somewhere else.
In Memphis, 50-year-old Stewart Wilson said there was nothing he could do to prevent a disaster in his home town. He figures he’d adapt.
“If it gets so bad in Memphis,” he shrugged, “I’ve got relatives in Jackson, Tenn., and Chattanooga.”
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