New Madrid County's shaky history

Published: Nov. 25, 2015 at 10:47 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 25, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
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NEW MADRID COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - At least a dozen earthquakes were reported in New Madrid County Mo. on Wednesday, November 25, and while many of the tremors were small in scale the area has a shaky history.

The most violent series of earthquakes ever recorded in the United States hit New Madrid in about a seven week stretch between 1811 and 1812, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The first of the tremors, a magnitude 7.5, hit around 2 a.m. on December 16, 1811.

The USGS reports on that morning residents were rattled from their beds, aroused by the sounds of cracking timbers and breaking dishes.  Chimneys fell and trees collapsed. Large cracks in the earth opened, swallowing river and marsh water, then closed, spewing mud and sand.

The violent shaking generated waves on the Mississippi River, overpowering river traffic and rerouting some vessels high upon the shore.

According to the USGS, later evidence would find the epicenter of the December 16 quake was actually somewhere in northeast Arkansas, but what happened that morning was a precursor of things to come.

On January 23, 1812, a second tremor measuring a magnitude 7.3, hit New Madrid at 9:15 a.m.

Then came the third, and perhaps the most severe tremor of the series, a magnitude 7.5 rattled New Madrid the morning of February 7, 1812.

Aftershocks were felt for years after the initial rumbling.

The series of strong earthquakes are responsible for literally changing the map

Large areas of land were permanently lifted. Larger areas sank and were covered by water. The shifting of the earth helped form Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee.

According to the USGS, the death toll from the earthquakes was never recorded, but the agency estimates "the loss of life was very slight."

If the population of New Madrid was then what it is today the outcome may have been very different.

"It is likely that if at the time of the earthquakes the New Madrid area had been as heavily populated as at present, thousands of persons would have perished," according to an article on the USGS's website.

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