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Did FEMA Expect Midwest MegaQuake by 2014?

Is an earthquake the size of the 1811 New Madrid quake, the largest ever to hit the eastern United States, imminent in the next 3 years? Most seismologists believe that the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), which runs along the Mississippi River and stretches across eight states, has the potential to shift again but they can only predict a low probability of it doing so at any given time. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a request for information (RFI) to vendors last week for 140 million meals ready to eat (MREs) for a projected 7 million survivors in the event of an NMSZ earthquake. Then they pulled the request, saying it was a bureaucratic error.

No harm in being prepared, of course, but the MRE specifications asked for meals with "36 months of remaining shelf life." At about $10 per MRE, that's a cost of $1.4 billion. So what's the risk of this calamity in the next 3 years?

Not much of one, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS's) hazard map, which says that the risk of an earthquake the magnitude of New Madrid is 10% over the next 50 years nationwide and not just in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

Supposedly, USGS informs FEMA's earthquake predictions, and USGS senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards David Applegate, who works with FEMA officials on the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction, said he hadn't heard anything about the meals order. He said the 3-year time wasn't based on any USGS recommendations that upped the ante of earthquake recommendations; their 2008 hazard map is still current. The risk, he said, is "small, not negligible, but certainly not what you'd be buying meals for."

In an e-mail, FEMA officials stated that the RFI was "prematurely posted on FedBizOpps in an attempt to gather information from potential venders" but canceled a week after posting when they realized that the Defense Logistics Agency is responsible for providing these meals.

Seismologist Seth Stein of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, author of a new book skeptical about the dangers posed by the NMSZ, said that such a purchase would be a "horrible waste of public money." (Two related RFIs are still active, for 7 million emergency blankets and 550 million gallons of water in individual 1-liter plastic bottles.) Stein suggested that the posting was a part of the "PR blitz" for FEMA's upcoming 2011 National Level Exercise, in which eight states will simulate a response to a magnitude 7+ earthquake on the bicentennial of the 1811 quake.

"I think it's great that [FEMA is] doing this exercise based on New Madrid because it does represent a huge coordination challenge," Applegate said, adding that the Midwest states are not as aware of earthquake danger as states such as California. The damage caused by a sequence of magnitude 7+ earthquakes like the 1811-1812 series would top $300 billion, according to a FEMA-funded report from the Mid-America Earthquake Center published last year.