October 4, 2013

Huff and Puff to keep your house standing, for the Common good


It was 1811 and Amos Burdine had just moved his wife Jennie, their boys and newborn daughter, Susannah, to Missouri.  The family had settled on Dog Prairie about a third of the way up the Mississippi River toward Hannibal from St. Louis. Tensions between the U.S. and England had never been resolved. Native American Indians from the northeast had been displaced and pressured to move to the area.  Wild animals and all types of scoundrels filled the woods. Danger lurked everywhere along the river.

The settlers had no reason to expect what happened during the wee hours of the morning of December 16, 1811.  They would not have been surprised by a military altercation or an attack by Indians provoked by the British or even a bear trying to break into their cabin.  However at around 2 a.m., as the family slept, with no warning, the New Madrid earthquake rocked the entire North American continent.  Bells rang of their own accord in Boston and sidewalks cracked in Washington DC.  

In St. Charles County, Missouri, near the epicenter, the boards on the roof of the Burdine cabin shook so violently that Amos feared that his family was being attacked.  In fear of their lives, Amos and his sons proceeded to shoot so many holes toward the rafters that the roof leaked from that day forward.  The earthquake was felt in an area nearly 200 times larger than the area that would feel the San Francisco earthquake 95 years later.  By morning the country had endured 27 additional aftershocks.

Amos and Jennie were my great grandmother’s great grandparents and I can but imagine the pure terror that they experienced during that long, long night.  They were absolutely helpless at the mercy of a natural disaster. Today, we are not so much.  The intervening two centuries have brought much technological change and have made America a safer place.  Sure, there are still earthquakes, but our structures are so much safer.  Of course there are still hurricanes and tornadoes, but the national weather service is able to give us better warnings.

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