His weak coffee long since finished, Doug reached under the table for a plastic water bottle and took a drink. "Well, I was stationed in Missouri at Fort Leonard Wood when the first earthquake hit. It was December 15, at ten o'clock in the morning. Saturday. I was outside the barracks, throwing a football around with some buddies. It lasted for almost five solid minutes. The first really big shaker, I mean. There were aftershocks that went on for days, and you never knew if they were the start of another big one. We were two hundred miles from the epicenter, and it was still almost strong enough to knock you off your feet. You couldn't stand up, you had to sit down. I was outside, and you could see land waves, like rollers on the ocean. Not that high, but you could actually see them, see the land rolling. It was pretty amazing. When you can't trust the old terra firma under your feet, what can you trust? Anyway, most of the troops at Leonard Wood were put on buses and sent to St.Louis. St. Louis didn't have too much direct earthquake damage, but the power was out and the gas and water were down. A lot of fires started, and they just kept getting bigger. And as soon as the power and lights went out, you might say that the civil order fell apart pretty fast."
Carson said, "When I was down in Panama, I saw some video of the damage. It hit between St. Louis and Memphis, right?"
"Closer to Memphis. It's two hundred fifty miles from St. Louis to Memphis, and the quake's epicenter was fifty miles north of Memphis. Just below Missouri's 'boot heel,' but across the river in Tennessee."
"Is that near New Madrid? The news I heard said it was almost as bad as the big New Madrid quake, back in the early 1800s."
"It was in 1812. New Madrid is in Missouri, just above the boot heel. But it doesn't matter exactly where the center was. It was almost an eight on the Richter scale for about a hundred miles around the epicenter. Midwest earthquakes are a lot worse than California ones. I mean, they're wider; they cover a lot more territory with the full power. We sure felt it at Fort Leonard Wood, and we were two hundred miles away. Like I said, most of our available troops went to St. Louis, to try to restore civil order. My battalion was held back because we had the assault bridges. We were staging up for bigger and better things.
"While we were waiting around, we were watching television every chance we got. Cable news. Some of the base was on generator power, so we could watch satellite TV. There was rioting and looting in St. Louis and Nashville, but the video coming out of Memphis was the worst. Video shot from helicopters. It was like the end of the world down there. It seemed like half of that city was unreinforced masonry--brick--and most of it went down. Even regular wood-frame houses were shaken to pieces. All kinds of natural gas lines go through there; it's like a big energy corridor from the Gulf to the Northeast. Well, at least it was. The gas pipe-lines broke in a million places, and a lot of Memphis burned to the ground. Then it was the chemical plants. They had all kinds of chemical plants and fuel farms along the Mississippi, and the ones that didn't burn spilled. It was a mess! And smack in the middle of all of that, a million people. No electricity, no drinking water, no gas stations or supermarkets open, roads blocked, bridges down...you couldn't imagine such a place. And that's where we were going."
"It sounds like Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana," Carson said.
"Oh, it was much worse. New Orleans wasn't on fire after Katrina. And New Orleans had a big rescue effort going in after just a few days. FEMA was ready and waiting to go into New Orleans, because you can see hurricanes coming a week out. Earthquakes catch you totally off guard. The worst earthquake damage went for more than a hundred miles around the epicenter, and it just nailed Memphis. There was damage everywhere, from Little Rock to Nashville to St. Louis. Memphis was just the worst-hit major city, so it got the most media attention.
"My unit spent until Christmas at Fort Leonard Wood. We were watching television news reports all the time we weren't on duty. Most of the film was shot from helicopters. It was too dangerous to land in Memphis. Any helicopters that landed were swarmed with people trying to get out. So many people would grab on that they couldn't lift off the ground. And when they did airlift people out, where could they put them? You can't just drop them off in a field--that just moves the problem from A to B. They dropped pallets of food and water bottles, just hovered and threw them down, but that caused riots. Every time they dropped pallets of food or water in Memphis, it was like Mad Max--survival of the fittest. The law of the jungle. Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost. Women and children last. They did hundreds of airdrops, but it was just a drop in the bucket, and the meanest thugs got it all anyway. No way could we land and set up distribution centers, not right after the first quake. We had to wait to go in with a big enough force, that's what my battalion was gearing up for. It was just dog-eat-dog on the ground in Memphis. And it was freezing cold, remember. A lot of the city burned for days, and some chemical dumps burned for weeks, so the air was horrible."
"And no food, and no drinking water," said Carson. "I can't imagine what it must have been like in there. It must have been hell in Memphis."
"Apocalyptic, that's the word. When you thought it couldn't get any worse, it got a lot worse. I was in the headquarters company, so I had a little better idea about what was going on. Some of my friends were in communications; they let me know what was really happening. The whole earthquake rescue operation was totally botched. FEMA was just overwhelmed, and they did almost everything wrong. It didn't help that so many highway bridges were down. You just couldn't get relief convoys in. People coming out of Memphis had to walk, because their cars were out of gas or they were stuck in massive gridlocks. Too many roads were cracked, and too many bridges were down. Anyway, not very many people got out of Memphis in cars, not after the first big quake. It's not that every single bridge collapsed, they didn't. But enough did that it turned the evacuation into a permanent gridlock. Thousands of people got out by walking...but they weren't exactly greeted with open arms out in the country. A lot of the black refugees were shot on sight. At least I think they were black. Everybody looks black after they're lying on the ground dead for a few days. That was what we saw on television, back at Fort Leonard Wood. The TV networks all had their news anchors up in helicopters, filming it. Dead black people on the ground, everywhere.
"Well, we finally got our orders to move out the day after Christmas. We went with our equipment on trucks, and worked our way down into Arkansas in a two-hundred-vehicle convoy. So many highway overpasses were down that we had to keep making detours, which was a real problem because every time we slowed down, we'd get swarmed with refugees. And that was in Arkansas, which wasn't half as bad as Tennessee. We crossed the Mississippi north of Memphis, on barges. Tugboats pulled us across, going back and forth like an amphibious landing. Some of the chemical plants were still burning, two weeks after the quake. The air was so bad it burned your eyes and made your lungs ache. It was like D-Day meets Apocalypse Now."
"Is it true that all the bridges above Vicksburg are still down?" "Down, or unusable. Well, there's a new cable-stay bridge at Cape Girardeau that came through the quakes, but that was the only one."
"So, what was the problem? Why didn't you cross there?"
"The problem is the river doesn't go under it anymore. There's just a lake there now. The river cut a new channel, a few miles west of the bridge. The quakes made a lot of new channels. The Ohio and Tennessee rivers too. Paducah was wiped flat when the Kentucky Dam failed. That sent all of the water in Kentucky Lake down into the Ohio like a tidal wave, straight through Paducah."
"Kentucky Lake is huge," Carson noted. "It goes practically all the way across Tennessee."
"It was huge. But not after the dam collapsed. It was just an earthen dam, built way back during the Great Depression. Cairo, Illinois, is gone, just plain gone. And I don't mean just the buildings, I mean the land under the buildings--it's not there anymore. It's under water. That's where the Ohio meets the Mississippi now, right where Cairo used to be. That happened after the first earthquake, a year ago on December 15."
"So our battalion made it across the Mississippi on barges. Our mission was to put a temporary bridge across the Wolf River, and another one on Nonconnah Creek. Have you ever heard of them?"
"Well, they both run into the Mississippi. The Wolf runs along the north side of Memphis, and the Nonconnah along the south side. Most of Memphis lies between those two rivers, and of course the Mississippi River is on the west. Memphis was practically an island once those bridges went down. All of Western Tennessee was basically an island when the big river bridges went down, so that made Memphis an island on an island. The only way out of Memphis across dry land was straight to the east between the Wolf and the Nonconnah, through suburban towns like Germantown and Collierville. Our mission was to open a supply route from Memphis straight south into the state of Mississippi. Getting a bridge over the Mississippi River was out of the question, that'd take years. The Ohio and Tennessee rivers weren't much better, those bridges were down too. Interstate 55 was going to be our main supply route from Mississippi into Western Tennessee. The highway runs straight south from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, and then New Orleans. Our mission was to bridge the Wolf and then the Nonconnah, to open up the route down into Mississippi."
"I thought General Mirabeau sealed the state border."
"He did, to refugees coming out of Memphis. We were opening up a route to bring in relief supplies. I have no idea what kind of coordination happened between Mirabeau and Washington, or what kind of deals were made. At the time, we were just operating under our original orders: put temporary bridges over the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek, and open up I-55 from Memphis down into Mississippi."
Doug sipped his water and continued. "The Memphis airport is south of the Nonconnah too, near I-55. Between Nonconnah Creek and the Mississippi state line. Once they got the runways fixed, they were bringing transport planes with relief supplies into the airport, but they could only get it from there into Memphis by helicopter. It was the mother of all bottlenecks. Once we fixed the bridges, FEMA and the military could bring the stuff into Memphis on the roads. As it was, thousands and thousands of refugees were crossing the Nonconnah in little boats, or even swimming. Pedestrians could get across some of the wrecked bridges. All of these people were swamping the airport, turning it into a giant refugee camp, and that made the bottleneck situation there even worse. Without a working road from the airport into Memphis, all they could do was helicopter airdrops, and that wasn't enough. FEMA was stuck way behind the curve. The situation in Memphis was getting worse by the day, not better. But first we had to bridge the Wolf River, north of Memphis."
"How did that go?"
"We set up a series of assault bridges. We had the Wolverine bridge system at Fort Leonard Wood; it can extend out across an eighty-foot gap. The Wolf River averaged about two hundred feet wide--over the water, I mean. The bridge was much wider, to get the roadway up onto high ground. Sections of the old bridge were still usable. We got a lane open with our Wolverines, plus what we could pick up out of the river with cranes. We broke every safety regulation there ever was putting old bridge sections back up, but our mission came first: open a lane over those two rivers ASAP, no matter what! Our welders and riggers really kicked ass, they were just amazing. The work they did! We had our own operating engineers, so when we needed bigger equipment than what we brought, we just commandeered what we could scrounge up and we got to work. Big road cranes, mostly, plus 'dozers and backhoes."
Carson asked, "What do you mean, commandeered?"
"We just took what we needed. Emergency law, it was all under emergency law. We could take the crane operators and mechanics too, when we could find them. Sometimes they helped us willingly. I mean, it's their city, and they wanted to fix things even more than we did. Plus, they'd rather run their own equipment than see it driven off by strangers and maybe get ruined. We usually got help with the heavy equipment, one way or the other. We had our own fuel tankers, and we were armed, right? We had plenty of qualified equipment operators in our battalion. We could run any machines we could find. Well, it took us three days to get a single lane open across the Wolf. We left a reinforced company for security, and the battalion pushed on south to Nonconnah Creek with the rest of our equipment.
"It took them two days to make it ten miles as the crow flies. Whoever decided our battalion should cross the Mississippi River above Memphis should be shot. We should have come across the Mississippi further south, into the state of Mississippi, and then gone up into Memphis. Instead, we did it ass backwards. Typical Army planning--go the shortest way, not the best or the easiest. I think they did it because the Mississippi River was blocked by the fallen bridges: they had to use the barges and tugs where they were, north of Memphis. Anyway, we ended up driving clear around the city in a big zigzag circle, trying to get to the Nonconnah. We couldn't use the highways, I-40 or 240--that's the beltway around Memphis. Too many overpasses came down in the quake, so we had to use the surface streets. It took us two days of moving telephone poles and pushing through rubble and fending off refugees. It was a nightmare. We were supposed to put up bridges to bring in relief supplies and allow refugees out. In the end, it was us who needed to be rescued, along with everybody else.
"We had to use live ammo--fire warning shots, then shoot to kill, the whole nine yards. Our mission was considered that important. We lost a third of our convoy along the way: ambushed, split off, looted or burned. Our battalion CO had orders to press straight on to the Nonconnah, but she kept detaching elements to rescue people. It was a horror show. It was hard to drive on by when you saw little kids begging for help, drinking ditch water--starving and freezing. We had our own rations, but it was tough keeping our minds on our mission. You just wanted to stop and help people everywhere, but you couldn't. We had to get the highway down into Mississippi open. We had to open the way to the airport. By then we had some big road cranes that we'd picked up along the way. Anything we could use, we took it if we could. Just took it, under emergency law. Finally, on January 7, we opened up the bridge over the Nonconnah. The interstate highway down to Mississippi was open, and that meant the Memphis airport was open too. Only one lane, but it was open. Technically open, anyway. Then my company was sent back north, to bring down more supplies from the barge crossing point north of Memphis."
Carson asked, "The state of Mississippi was already a disaster area from the hurricanes, wasn't it? Did they really expect Mississippi to come and rescue Memphis?"
"That kind of decision was way above my pay grade. I was just there to help open the highway down into Mississippi. But it didn't matter in the end--it was a moot point. On January 9, the second big quake hit. Nobody expected it! At first, we thought it was just another aftershock. Our temporary bridges fell into the rivers. Our best cranes went over too, both our own and the big civilian cranes that we'd commandeered. It was the best heavy equipment we could find around Memphis, and down it went. When a crane goes over, you need another crane to lift it back up--but there were no more cranes. And their booms and lifting cables were totally fubared. You don't just go down to Home Depot and get more of them. They don't stock cantilevered booms for hundred-ton cranes, or spools of one-inch rigging wire. Not to mention that all of the Home Depots were looted anyway. So all that work we did to get heavy equipment to the rivers was wasted. After the January quake, all of that equipment wound up getting stuck. Stuck, trapped or ruined, and the bridges were back down in the river. And here we were, an active duty Army battalion, and we basically needed to be rescued. Our rations ran out. We didn't bring any heavy weapons, just our rifles and a basic load of ammo. That was almost all expended just getting through Memphis."
"Didn't the Army use choppers to fly food and ammo in to you?"
"Some, but hardly enough. Remember, there were millions of people in a bad, bad way, from Nashville to Little Rock. We were just a battalion of soldiers, so I guess they expected us to be able to take care of ourselves. We were a low priority, just one of probably hundreds of military units stranded all over the place."
"How big was the second quake?"
"I've heard all kinds of numbers. At least an eight on the Richter scale, about as strong as the first one. I don't truthfully know. It was big. The second earthquake hit after dark, seven thirty at night. There was a curfew. No more vehicle traffic at night except for the military--not that anybody obeyed the curfew. It was a madhouse, nobody was in charge, there were no police. We had camps on both sides of the Wolf River, guarding the bridge, manning refugee checkpoints. There were refugee squatter camps on both sides of the river, trying to get protection and begging for some of our rations, our MREs, and our clean water.
"Anyway, I was walking across the bridge with a couple of my squad buddies when it started moving, slow at first, then bucking real hard. I tried to run for the land, it was about fifty yards in either direction to get off the bridge and onto solid ground--our steel Wolverine spans and the concrete sections that came through the first quake, or that we'd lifted back up with cranes. I couldn't run; the bridge was going wild. I tried to hang on to a girder; it was like trying to hang on to one of those bull-riding machines. Felt like it went on forever, minutes anyway. Very long minutes. Our cranes all went over. One came down right across the bridge and almost nailed me.
"You can't even imagine how freaking scary it was. Thousands of birds were going insane, screaming and flying in every direction, just flying straight into things and breaking their necks. Lightning was striking all around us. The sky was kind of a sickly yellow from the chemical fires that were still burning over on the Mississippi River, and there was a new sulfur smell just to remind you that hell was opening up. You could smell it: the sulfur was so strong it burned your nose. It was apocalyptic, super-natural, anything you can think of like that--times ten.
"The steel bridge girders were grinding and wailing, up and down, side to side, back and forth, and then it all let go. I was sure I was going to die. I went down with the bridge section; it was about fifty feet down to the water. I went underwater, and then I was like a goldfish in a blender full of black paint. I thought, 'Well, it's my turn now.' I'd seen so many dead bodies since I'd crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee--it was hardly a surprise that my time had come. I was on the verge of just taking a great big breath of Wolf River when I was spat up into the air, and then I was just carried along like on whitewater rapids. Mind you, this was on the Wolf River that most of the time barely moves. But there I was, just getting swept along for the ride with trees, cars, telephone poles, I can't even imagine what. It was pitch black except for the earthquake lightning and the chemical plants back on the Mississippi River that were still burning.