2020 has been a horrible year. I hope it doesn’t end like another bad year, 1811.
That year, rains brought mud and flood to Upper Louisiana. The nightly appearance of the devil-tailed Great Comet prompted rumors of destruction. The brilliant Tecumseh campaigned for tribes on both sides of the Mississippi to unite to beat back the encroaching Americans. The adolescent United States crept closer to the War of 1812.
Then a natural disaster struck the middle of the newly expanded United States.
In early morning on December 16, a series of earthquakes, aftershocks, and tremors began, interrupting New Madrid’s French settlers’ Sunday night dance and rousting others in the river port from their beds. Brick houses and chimneys collapsed, and fires destroyed cabins.
That night the Mississippi ran backwards, driving boats up the river or capsizing them. Riverbanks gave way, casting camping travelers into the roiling water. Lakes drained, lakes formed. Wave-like furrows formed in fields. Trees fell or split up the middle as birds flocked to safer surfaces.
Many in the lightly populated region where Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee now come together feared the world was ending. The odor of sulfur encouraged that belief, and hundreds of the thousand or so townspeople in New Madrid fled through a giant swamp toward a huge hill. Residents of a village south of there waded through the overflowing river for hours to reach dry ground.
Church bells rang as far away as the East Coast. In Washington, D.C., dishes fell from cupboards, and President Madison was all shook up.
The last of three, or perhaps five, major earthquakes (estimated around 8 on the Richter Scale) occurred February 7, 1812. By then a scientist in Louisville, Kentucky, had measured a dozen or so major aftershocks and hundreds of tremors.
The tremors never really stopped. The biggest one this year has been a 3.6 in Marked Tree, Arkansas. Dyersburg, Tennessee, near quake-born Reelfoot Lake, has experienced two at 2.8 recently. To check on the latest, go to https://earthquaketrack.com/us-mo-new-madrid/recent. The site’s map shows where the tremors occur.
Few people lived near the epicenter (northeast Arkansas) at the time of the New Madrid (Missouri) earthquakes. Yet some researchers estimate as many as 1,500 died, many of them disappearing into the Mississippi.
Scientists have theorized that the earthquakes occur on a cycle, possibly every 500 years, possibly 200. Some expected the big one about 30 years ago. Some schools in southeast Missouri dismissed on the predicted doom’s day.
Today a comparable series of earthquakes would result in billions in damages and affect millions of people, including those who live in such cities as St. Louis and Memphis and rely on bridges to cross the Mississippi River.
I don’t usually think about the ongoing threat except when I pay my earthquake insurance, but 2020 does seem to be a year when bad things happen.