Shortly after 9 p.m. on the evening of August 31, 1886, telegraph wires from across the continent began roaring to life as major cities throughout the hemisphere began announcing a “remarkable natural phenomenon… [as the ground] rocked to and fro”.
The following morning, the Philadelphia Inquirer posted news of the earthquake on its front page, reporting that buildings in the City of Brotherly Love had “rocked back and forth” and that the clock along the wall at the Western Union office had been damaged.
In Indianapolis, a portion of the Denison Hotel was displaced, falling to the pavement, sending pedestrians fleeing for their lives. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “large buildings were shaken to their foundations…”
In the South, Jacksonville, Florida, reported that the previous night, buildings were shaken so severely that local residents “ran into the streets in alarm…”
In fact, every American city east of the Rockies had reported feeling some type of quake the previous evening — every city but one.
By the following morning, telegraph operators had become greatly alarmed over the fact that not a single telegraph had been received from the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Further worrying the nation was the reality that multiple telegraphs directed to the city had gone unanswered.
As the coming days would reveal, the cause for concern would prove legitimate — Charleston, South Carolina, had served as the epicenter of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Within the city almost all of the buildings sustained major damage and most had to be torn down. The city’s infrastructure was totally disabled, telegraph poles had been toppled, wires were cut and railroad tracks were torn apart.
Ultimately, the final count would reveal that approximately 60 individuals had lost their lives due to the historic quake.
Fast-forward some 131 years and the American Southeast has been rather fortunate when it comes to earthquakes — having never suffered anything similar to this since.
Unfortunately, according to USGS data, the past thirty years or so, the South may have been living on borrowed time, as significant portions of East Tennessee and South Carolina are estimated to experience up to 100 “damaging earthquakes” every 10,000 years — this reduces down to 1 per 100 years.
Other portions of the South, including much of Appalachia can expect up to 20 damaging earthquakes every 10,000 years — roughly 1 per 500 years.
Though it would be impossible to predict when these areas will be forced to pay the piper in this vicious game of Russian roulette, it is important for people to remember that many areas of the South are statistically due for a major earthquake in the coming days.
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division published a report pertaining to this subject and the findings are somewhat frightening.
The report found that an earthquake in the same location as the 1886 quake, of the same magnitude, would cause “an estimated 45,000 causalities, of which approximately 9,000 would be major injuries requiring hospitalization; fatalities would number about 900.”
The study also concluded that a daytime event would cause the highest number of causalities and the direct economic loss to the state would total in the tens of billions of dollars.
Far more concerning than the immediate damage caused by the quake would be the humanitarian disaster that would follow.
More than 250 separate fires are predicted to burn, stretching emergency crews to their brink. Additional infrastructure damage would leave about 80% of urban households around the Charleston, South Carolina, area without water services for possibly months.
Hospitals would likely suffer significant building damage that could result in up to 30 state hospitals out of the 108 being nonfunctional (about 30%). More than 220 schools and more than 160 fire stations would have significant damage.
Close to 800 bridges would be damaged beyond use, thus hampering evacuation and recovery efforts. About 63 electric power facilities would suffer at least moderate damage, leaving about 300,000 households without electricity.
The bottom line is that the overdue 100-year earthquake, such as the one experienced in 1886, would create a disaster the likes of which few can imagine.
Though we can do nothing to prevent such a quake, we can get to work preparing — beginning by having plans in place and the necessary stores of supplies necessary to survive in such an event.
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