The General, the Judge, and Temporal Geography

Ivan C. Potter

New Madrid 19th c. woodcutThe earth shakes violently. Buildings crumble and fall. Air is thick with death of property and humans. Fires start as the ruptured gas lines explode. All of this and more happen within the first few seconds of a major regional killer earthquake.

As the car sped along Highway 94 toward Murray, Kentucky, I let my eyes close a moment longer to let my mind visualize the horrors of a modern day regional killer earthquake.

It starts with 10,000 squirrels swimming across the Mississippi River from Missouri over to the City of Hickman, Ky. in Fulton County, just moments before the quake hit. This was what happened on December 16, 1811.

Following this scene was the roar, like an out of control railroad engine, barring down the tracks, except this sound was of the earth rupturing and being reshaped in hills and valleys of violent shaking where no man or beast was safe.

Back in 1811, several survivors of the great quake had the good sanity to write down the images of the first few seconds of the great quake. One of those survivors was Eliza Bryan.

Eliza Bryan in New Madrid, Territory of Missouri, wrote the following eyewitness account in March, 1812.

“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do - the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi - the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed -- formed a scene truly horrible.”

In my state of being half asleep from working later the night before, I noticed when we arrived at the Science and Technology Building on Murray State University campus how busy the parking lot was for the day being deep into the summer.  

Black coffee. Oh, God how I wanted another strong cup before entering the long two story building. Time check showed it was 8:30 am. I had been on the road from Clinton to Murray for the past hour. Being not a morning puppy, Mary had driven as I tried to make sense of why we were going to a yet another regional disaster meeting.   

In Room 206, I found the General, Brigadier General John W. Heltzel. He came from Frankfort, Kentucky with a very long and impressive title: Director, Division of Emergency Management.

As we shook hands, I was immediately thinking that I was in the presence of a modern day John Wayne of a man. Big hands, tall physical structure, engaging smile that lit up the room. You could tell he was a man on a mission.General Heltzel and staff brief Judge Pruitt

Joining us in the room were his staff and Hickman County Judge Executive Gregg Pruitt.

From 9:00 am to 11:45 am, the General’s team worked their way through a series of hard hitting “what if” earthquake disaster scenario for Hickman County.

Bottom line for us in Hickman County? If the Big One hits and takes out St. Louis and Memphis, then we are SO ON OUR OWN, for surviving the first week or worst case first 1-to 2 months.

With a calm voice,  but one filled with hard years of experience in tell local officials  the ugly truths of being prepared, General Heltzel lean into the direction of the county judge and said, “ When it happens, pray it isn’t during the winter or extreme heat of the summer.

You will lose all electric power. You may lose most of your communications with the outside world.

There are 3,000 bridges in West Kentucky between you and me. If eight key bridges go down, we can’t get to you by truck. We will have to come in by helicopters. In this worst case, we will have to use private and commercial helicopters. The guard will not have enough to cover the entire impacted area.”

As with most modern day Judge Executives of Kentucky’s smaller counties, the Judge seemed to be over whelmed by the facts of a major disaster, in which the county would be totally cut off from the outside world.

In his defense, the judge talked of his Fire and Rescue team’s ability to control any local disaster event. The judge was in doubt of a major disaster event happening again in his area.

This wNew Madrid fault lineas toward the end of the briefing. With calmness and singleness of purpose, the general looked into the eyes of the judge and spoke of recent history.

“West Kentucky has experienced extreme floods, wind events, heat, hurricane, two ice storms. Each year from now on, we expect some form of major disaster each year to hit Kentucky. We have to plan for the worst case situation. We need you, at the county level to be partners with us in reaction and recovery. The Ky. National Guard will respond regional. You must be prepared to meet us half way with a sound and tested strategic county plan that works and makes sense. ”

As I listen to his words, I thought to myself, the General is connecting all of the West Kentucky dots of temporal strategic planning while the Judge is still trying to delineate his very own dot.     

When the General, the Judge and I walked out of Room 206, heading down the 280 foot hall, toward lunch, I felt good because the Kentucky National Guard is taking the lead position for Kentucky in understanding how to use time projections of event dynamics into serious life saving planning. The Kentucky National Guard, Division of Emergency Management leaders and staff were becoming true 21st Century temporal geography warriors.