AEDC Safety advises caution when it comes to earthquakes in Tennessee

  • Published
  • By Richard Fleming
  • AEDC Safety

Growing up in California, we experienced earthquakes from time to time and learned what to do when one hit.

The last one I experienced before moving to Tennessee was a 6.0 earthquake that shook things up and caused some damage. Moving to the south, I worried about tornados but thought earthquakes were a thing of the past.

Obviously, I did not know much about Tennessee history. I was surprised to learn that between December 1811 and mid-March 1812 a series of catastrophic earthquakes shook West Tennessee resulting in changing the landscape over a widespread area including the formation of West Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake.

Judging from reports and eyewitness accounts, the quakes would have measured among the highest ever recorded on the modern Richter scale, estimated magnitude at 7.5. The earthquake was powerful enough to severely damage homes in St. Louis, located about 160 miles away, and to awaken sleepers in Washington, D.C. There were even reports that it was felt 1,200 miles away in Quebec City, Canada.

I was further surprised to learn that according to the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, 39 of the 50 American states have fault lines. There are two active faults in Tennessee. The first is the New Madrid Fault, which runs approximately 120 miles south from Charleston, Mo., via New Madrid, Mo., Caruthersville, Mo. and part of West Tennessee, near Reelfoot Lake, extending southeast into Dyersburg, Tenn. The second is the East Tennessee fault line, which runs from Chattanooga through Knoxville and on to North Carolina.

Imagine what it might be like if another large earthquake was to strike. In the immediate aftermath, buildings tumble; lines that carry either electrical power, or communications are disrupted or broken; and dams begin to leak and threaten to break. Imagine trying to walk on ground that is moving. What should you do to protect yourself?

During an earthquake

If you are indoors:

•     Drop, cover and hold on. If you are not near a strong table or desk, drop to the floor against an interior wall and cover your head and neck with your arms. 

•     Avoid windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances and other heavy objects. 

•     Do not try to run out of the structure during strong shaking. 

•     If you’re in bed at the time of the earthquake, stay there. Cover your head with a pillow. 

•     Do not use elevators. 

•     Be aware that the fire alarms and sprinklers may activate. 

If you are outdoors:

•     Move to a clear area if you can safely walk. Avoid power lines, buildings and trees.           

•     If you’re driving, pull to the side of the road and stop.                                                                                                           

•     Avoid stopping under overhead hazards such as bridges, overpasses, power lines or large overhead signs. 

Once the earthquake shaking stops:

•     Check those around you for injuries; provide first aid if needed. Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger. Keep them warm with blankets or additional clothing. 

•     Check the area for dangerous conditions such as fires, downed power lines and structure damage. 

•     If you have fire extinguishers and are trained to use them, put out small fires immediately. Use extreme caution around spilled or hazardous materials and flammable liquids.  

•     Avoid broken glass. 

If you are trapped in debris:

•     Move as little as possible so that you don’t stir up dust. Cover your nose and mouth with a handkerchief or clothing. 

•     Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can hear where you are. Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort. Save your voice and strength until you hear rescuers nearby.

According to the USGS, the number of earthquakes in Tennessee hovered around 30 to 50 per year during the mid-to-late 1990s. That number increased to approximately 150 in the mid-2000s and shot up to nearly 300 in the late 2010s. In 2023, Tennessee had 296 measurable quakes, some of which were measured up to a magnitude of 3.3 on the Richter scale. While most were on the eastern or western borders of the state, the effects often could be felt for miles. Even though Middle Tennessee has a lower earthquake risk than the eastern or western portions of the state, there have been six earthquakes between the magnitudes of 2.1 and 2.8 recorded since 2014.

As with any emergency, have a plan in place. Where will your family or coworkers meet? How will you communicate if there is no cell phone service? Do you have an out of town or off base contact? Do you have an emergency kit with items such as first aid, water and snacks that you can get your hands on?

By planning ahead and talking about the plan, everyone will know where to start if the unthinkable ever happens.

Take care of each other.