Tennessee leaders study whether state is prepared for own disaster

State leaders are studying Tennessee's ability to cope with a huge disaster after watching the trouble New Orleans had dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

Tennessee has the potential for a big disaster with a fault line in the western part of the state that has historically produced some of the continent's strongest earthquakes.

The last time the New Madrid fault produced a big earthquake almost two centuries ago, Indians reported seeing the Mississippi River running backward and forming new lakes.

With the big river running next to Memphis, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he has to make sure the state is ready if catastrophe strikes.

"Having watched this, it has raised in my mind 100 questions about what happens if the New Madrid fault slips and ... we have 50,000 people homeless," Bredesen said last week. "I would have thought we could put up a tent city for 20,000 people if we needed to. We can't."

Much has been done in recent years to deal with tornadoes, and planning for a potential earthquake has improved, Bredesen said.

But everyone in New Orleans knew big a hurricane would one day hit, and that city's response left thousands stranded for days.

Like other governors, Bredesen wants to make sure the same doesn't happen in his state.

The governor said the state will be a lot better prepared inside of a year, although the extent of what needs to be done, and the cost, are unknown. Bredesen has already talked about the need set aside supplies and material to deal with massive numbers of refugees.

"One of the things that is going to happen here is we're going to spend, I can tell you I'm going to spend, a lot of time thinking about what would happen," Bredesen said. "Not in the case of a tornado, we're fine with that kind of stuff, but in the case of something really major happening in the state of Tennessee."

Experts say the New Madrid fault system is the greatest earthquake risk east of the Rocky Mountains - and it crosses five state lines.

The fault starts near Cairo, Ill., and stretches about 150 miles south, passing through Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.

It is named for New Madrid, Mo., which sits along the main fault line.

It crosses the mighty Mississippi River in at least three places, escalating the chances for big floods should a huge earthquake hit.

Experts say that damaging earthquakes along the New Madrid fault are much rarer than in California - but they are far more catastrophic when they do occur.

Bredesen said he is confident the state is well prepared, but wants to make sure everything is being done to ready for a disaster.

"We'd be foolish not to step back and take a look at what happened in Louisiana and say, 'What can we learn from this?"' Bredesen said. "Things that we need to be looking at that may not have been so obvious two weeks ago might become obvious now."