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The Earthquake America Forgot: Two Thousand…

The Earthquake America Forgot: Two Thousand Temblors in Five Months and It…

by David Stewart

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1011,346,302 (4.25)10
Between December 1811 and May 1812 over 2000 earthquakes struck the central Mississippi River Valley near New Madrid, MO. The river ran backwards whole towns disappeared. People swallowed alive. Felt from Canada to Mexico. The largest outburst of seismic energy in American history. This book describes the people and their horrifying experiences.… (more)



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This is the second book about the New Madrid earthquakes written by the same author that I've read - the first being "The Earthquake That Never Went Away: The Shaking Stopped in 1812 but the Impact Goes On". When I first got this one home and thumbed through it, I thought it would be mostly a re-hashing of that other book, since many of the same photos and diagrams were included. This book has many of the shortcomings that we often complain about: pages of blurbs exclaiming about how wonderful the book is; a lack of sufficient professional editing; and tendencies by the author to include every detail uncovered in his research, to be overly familiar with the reader (if I never hear another "fault" pun again it will be too soon), and to blur the edges between science and speculation - presenting his opinion as fact (although, to be fair, he warns us up front that this will happen).

For a significant chunk of the book, these things bothered me. Then, a strange thing happened - I began to get so involved with the story that I didn't really notice them anymore. Not much, anyway. He tells us many of the same stories as were told in "When the Mississippi Ran Backwards" by Jay Feldman, which is what got me started reading about this subject in the first place - maybe the authors relied on the same sources. But, in this book, those stories were limited to what happened in or was affected by the New Madrid quake zone. So, even though there were references to the War of 1812, that didn't take over this book as it did the other one. We do learn about Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnee Indians. We learn about the steamboat "New Orleans" captained by Nicholas Roosevelt, great-great uncle of FDR. We also learn about the incident with the nephews of Thomas Jefferson who murdered and mutilated their slave and tried to hide the evdence, although for grisly details you'll need to read that other book - they were left out of this one. But while in the Feldman book, these stories overshadow accounts of the earthquakes and their cause, in this book they join several other stories to illustrate the far-reaching effects of the earthquakes. Plus, while the Feldman book included only a couple of tantalizing sentences about "Earthquake Christians" in his epilogue, this book goes into quite a lot more detail about them.

One thing I especially liked about this book is the emphasis placed on the losses suffered by native Americans - not just white Europeans and, incidentally, their African slaves. In most other accountings, this earthquake only claimed a few dozen lives - despite the incredible strength and violence of it. However, Stewart argues that that simply couldn't be true. Since it was a sparsely populated area, only a few dozen white people were killed on land - that is true. But several hundred were missing on the Mississippi River and must be presumed dead. Also, there were large populations of Indians living on vulnerable locations in the area and we must also presume that they suffered large loss of life. He places his conservative estimate at 1000 dead, and allows that the true toll may be double that or more.

He explains about the science behind the cause of the earthquakes and just touches on the still-lingering effects, which was the central theme of his other book. He includes a sizable final chapter on current (1994) earthquake research and the predictions for future activity along this fault line. He provides a section where the reader can identify their home county and compute estimates of property damage and loss of life in the event of another large earthquake in the same location as before. He discusses ways that damage and injury can be minimized through preventive actions taken now, as well as the kinds of earthquake preparedness tips that are common in California - but virtually unheard of here in the midwest. Another section describes the unexpected types of earthquake damage that can occur even at large distances from small quakes and provides resources for dealing with insurance companies who decline to cover those losses under earthquake coverage.

In the end, I found the book to be very interesting and informative. I skimmed over the parts where he digressed into extraneous details that didn't interest me (and which I though should have been edited out). These two books of his are marketed as companion volumes - this one aimed at a general audience and the other suitable for scientists as well. I'd agree with that - if you have a choice of the two, I'd recommend this one. ( )
2 vote sjmccreary | Aug 5, 2010 |
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