Memphis examines earthquake impact on city

Fire recently destroyed the downtown bar Blue Monkey. But "the big one" could pack a similar punch, leaving bricks strewn all over the street.

"You can't help but think about it," says Willard Pierce.

Pierce works in the basement of an old building on Main Street. He's often thought about the impact of a major earthquake.

"I mean, could I get under a beam and survive that way?" he asks.

Experts say the destructive force of a Magnitude 8 quake could completely devastate downtown Memphis.

"The history here shows that over the last 2000 years, we've probably had four sequences of large earthquakes," says Gary Patterson of the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information.

That kind of severe shaking could topple tall buildings, liquify soil, and send houses on Mud Island into the muddy Mississippi.

"We can't give any warning," says Patterson.

Work to retro-fit the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge is clearly visible underneath that structure. But even it offers no guarantees.

"As far as the big ones go--I don't think anybody can be totally prepared," says Patterson.

The good news? "Moderate" earthquakes are much more probable along the New Madrid Fault. Those are the kinds for which you can prepare.

"Look at your home, each part of your home," says Patterson. "It takes only a couple of minutes to say, if there's a shaking, let's go in this part of the house," he adds.

It's advice that might just save your life.

"You don't have time to be afraid--you have to have a plan and work your plan," says Patterson.

It's a plan most of us hope we will never need.

While we always seem to concentrate on the probability of "the big one," consider this: there have been more than 100 small earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic region in just the last six months alone.