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Map of New Madrid earthquake damageuake

Wayne Viitanen, a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, holds a map in 1972 showing the primary areas of damage during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. He was studying them for his dissertation. (Post-Dispatch)

JEFFERSON CITY — It’s the seismic equivalent of a “scared straight” program.

Just as authorities have used the backdrop of a prison to scare juvenile delinquents into staying out of trouble, Missouri officials are buying a piece of equipment designed to help prepare residents for earthquakes.

Armed with federal funding, the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency submitted documents last month seeking a no-bid contract to purchase a nearly $200,000 vehicle that simulates the experience of being in an earthquake.

The simulator is built into a large cargo trailer. Special hydraulics shake it violently for 5 to 10 seconds, giving riders the feel of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.

The inside of the unit is decorated like a small house to illustrate how pictures, televisions and other household items can become projectiles if not properly secured for an earthquake. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, broken glass and flying objects are a key source of death and injury in an earthquake.

SEMA spokeswoman Caty Eisterhold said the trailer is an important preparation tool in a region that saw one of the most powerful earthquakes east of the Rocky Mountains.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 1811, the New Madrid Fault along the Mississippi River in Missouri’s Bootheel region unleashed one of the strongest earthquakes on what was then the sparsely populated western frontier of the United States.

The tremor woke people in distant cities on the East Coast, including President James Madison in Washington. Some accounts say it caused the Mississippi River to run backward in places.

Although there were no official seismographs to document it, the event is estimated to have been a magnitude 7.7 quake.

“Preparedness is key to avoiding injuries and reducing damage. To raise awareness of the dangers of the (New Madrid Seismic Zone) and overall earthquake preparedness throughout the state, the earthquake simulator will be utilized for educational outreach at public events,” Eisterhold said.

“How first responders, emergency managers and the public would respond in the event of a major NMSZ earthquake is not only a central focus in Missouri, but other states,” she added.

In the Midwest, Indiana also has used one of the vehicles to demonstrate the severity of a strong quake. Other states that have used the machines include California and Washington.

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Small earthquakes are common in Missouri.

In mid-October, the U.S. Geological Survey said a magnitude 3.0 earthquake occurred about 2.7 miles southwest of Lilbourn in New Madrid County in the Bootheel.

The sheriff’s office says it received no reports of damage or injuries.

The Missouri Geological Survey says at least four earthquakes measuring 4.5-magnitude or greater have occurred in the zone since 1974. Hundreds of quakes between magnitude 2.0 and 3.9 have been recorded there since 2000.

Eisterhold said the state emergency management agency plans to use a two-person team to take the unit through the Bootheel region.

“The simulation is expected to reinforce engagement and interaction with Missourians about actions they can take now to be safer during an earthquake and what they should expect immediately after a large magnitude impact,” Eisterhold said.

She said the no-bid contract was used because the equipment is very specialized.

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