Everyone--all the geologists, at any rate--had known about the Kiowa Fault for years. That was before there was anything very interesting to know about it. The first survey of Colorado traced its course north and south in the narrow valley of Kiowa Creek about twenty miles east of Denver; it extended south to the Arkansas River. And that was about all even the professionals were interested in knowing. There was never so much as a landslide to bring the Fault to the attention of the general public.
It was still a matter of academic interest when in the late ‘40s geologists speculated on the relationship between the Kiowa Fault and the Conchas Fault farther south, in New Mexico, and which followed the Pecos as far south as Texas.
Nor was there much in the papers a few years later when it was suggested that the Niobrara Fault (just inside and roughly parallel to the eastern border of Wyoming) was a northerly extension of the Kiowa. By the mid sixties it was definitely established that the three Faults were in fact a single line of fissure in the essential rock, stretching almost from the Canadian border well south of the New Mexico-Texas line.
It is not really surprising that it took so long to figure out the connection. The population of the states affected was in places as low as five people per square mile! The land was so dry it seemed impossible that it could ever be used except for sheep-farming.
It strikes us today as ironic that from the late ‘50s there was grave concern about the level of the water table throughout the entire area.
The even more ironic solution to the problem began in the summer of 1973. It had been a particularly hot and dry August, and the Forestry Service was keeping an anxious eye out for the fires it knew it could expect. Dense smoke was reported rising above a virtually uninhabited area along Black Squirrel Creek, and a plane was sent out for a report.
The report was--no fire at all. The rising cloud was not smoke, but dust. Thousands of cubic feet of dry earth rising lazily on the summer air. Rock slides, they guessed; certainly no fire. The Forestry Service had other worries at the moment, and filed the report.
But after a week had gone by, the town of Edison, a good twenty miles away from the slides, was still complaining of the dust. Springs was going dry, too, apparently from underground disturbances. Not even in the Rockies could anyone remember a series of rock slides as bad as this.
Newspapers in the mountain states gave it a few inches on the front page; anything is news in late August. And the geologists became interested. Seismologists were reporting unusual activity in the area, tremors too severe to be rock slides. Volcanic activity? Specifically, a dust volcano? Unusual, they knew, but right on the Kiowa Fault--could be.
Labor Day crowds read the scientific conjectures with late summer lassitude. Sunday supplements ran four-color artists’ conceptions of the possible volcano. “Only Active Volcano in U. S.?” demanded the headlines, and some papers even left off the question mark.
It may seem odd that the simplest explanation was practically not mentioned. Only Joseph Schwartzberg, head geographer of the Department of the Interior, wondered if the disturbance might not be a settling of the Kiowa Fault. His suggestion was mentioned on page nine or ten of the Monday newspapers (page 27 of the New York Times). The idea was not nearly so exciting as a volcano, even a lava-less one, and you couldn’t draw a very dramatic picture of it.
To excuse the other geologists, it must be said that the Kiowa Fault had never acted up before. It never sidestepped, never jiggled, never, never produced the regular shows of its little sister out in California, which almost daily bounced San Francisco or Los Angeles, or some place in between. The dust volcano was on the face of it a more plausible theory.
Still, it was only a theory. It had to be proved. As the tremors grew bigger, along with the affected area, as several towns including Edison were shaken to pieces by incredible earthquakes, whole bus- and plane-loads of geologists set out for Colorado, without even waiting for their university and government department to approve budgets.
They found, of course, that Schwartzberg had been perfectly correct.
They found themselves on the scene of what was fast becoming the most violent and widespread earthquake North America--probably the world--has ever seen in historic times. To describe it in the simplest terms, land east of the Fault was settling, and at a precipitous rate.
Rock scraped rock with a whining roar. Shuddery as a squeaky piece of chalk raked across a blackboard, the noise was deafening. The surfaces of the land east and west of the Fault seemed no longer to have any relation to each other. To the west, tortured rock reared into cliffs. East, where sharp reports and muffled wheezes told of continued buckling and dropping, the earth trembled downward. Atop the new cliffs, which seemed to grow by sudden inches from heaving rubble, dry earth fissured and trembled, sliding acres at a time to fall, smoking, into the bucking, heaving bottom of the depression.
There the devastation was even more thorough, if less spectacular. Dry earth churned like mud, and rock shards weighing tons bumped and rolled about like pebbles as they shivered and cracked into pebbles themselves. “It looks like sand dancing in a child’s sieve,” said the normally impassive Schwartzberg in a nationwide broadcast from the scene of disaster. “No one here has ever seen anything like it.” And the landslip was growing, north and south along the Fault.
“Get out while you can,” Schwartzberg urged the population of the affected area. “When it’s over you can come back and pick up the pieces.” But the band of scientists who had rallied to his leadership privately wondered if there would be any pieces.
The Arkansas River, at Avondale and North Avondale, was sluggishly backing north into the deepening trough. At the rate things were going, there might be a new lake the entire length of El Paso and Pueblo Counties. And, warned Schwartzberg, this might only be the beginning.
By 16 September the landslip had crept down the Huerfano River past Cedarwood. Avondale, North Avondale and Boone had totally disappeared. Land west of the Fault was holding firm, though Denver had recorded several small tremors; everywhere east of the Fault, to almost twenty miles away, the now-familiar lurch and steady fall had already sent several thousand Coloradans scurrying for safety.
All mountain climbing was prohibited on the Eastern Slope because of the danger of rock slides from minor quakes. The geologists went home to wait.
There wasn’t much to wait for. The news got worse and worse. The Platte River, now, was creating a vast mud puddle where the town of Orchard had been. Just below Masters, Colorado, the river leaped 70-foot cliffs to add to the heaving chaos below. And the cliffs were higher every day as the land beneath them groaned downward in mile-square gulps.
As the Fault moved north and south, new areas quivered into unwelcome life. Fields and whole mountainsides moved with deceptive sloth down, down. They danced “like sand in a sieve”; dry, they boiled into rubble. Telephone lines, railroad tracks, roads snapped and simply disappeared. Virtually all east-west land communication was suspended and the President declared a national emergency.
By 23 September the Fault was active well into Wyoming on the north, and rapidly approaching the border of New Mexico to the south. Trinchera and Branson were totally evacuated, but even so the over-all death toll had risen above 1,000.
Away to the east the situation was quiet but even more ominous. Tremendous fissures opened up perpendicular to the Fault, and a general subsidence of the land was noticeable well into Kansas and Nebraska. The western borders of these states, and soon of the Dakotas and Oklahoma as well, were slowly sinking.
On the actual scene of the disaster (or the scenes; it is impossible to speak of anything this size in the singular) there was a horrifying confusion. Prairie and hill cracked open under intolerable strains as the land shuddered downward in gasps and leaps. Springs burst to the surface in hot geysers and explosions of steam.
The downtown section of North Platte, Nebraska, dropped eight feet, just like that, on the afternoon of 4 October. “We must remain calm,” declared the Governor of Nebraska. “We must sit this thing out. Be assured that everything possible is being done.” But what could be done, with his state dropping straight down at a mean rate of a foot a day?
The Fault nicked off the south-east corner of Montana. It worked its way north along the Little Missouri. South, it ripped past Roswell, New Mexico, and tore down the Pecos toward Texas. All the upper reaches of the Missouri were standing puddles by now, and the Red River west of Paris, Texas, had begun to run backward.
Soon the Missouri began slowly slipping away westward over the slowly churning land. Abandoning its bed, the river spread uncertainly across farmland and prairie, becoming a sea of mud beneath the sharp new cliffs which rose in rending line, ever taller as the land continued to sink, almost from Canada to the Mexican border. There were virtually no floods, in the usual sense. The water moved too slowly, spread itself with no real direction or force. But the vast sheets of sluggish water and jelly-like mud formed death-traps for the countless refugees now streaming east.
Perhaps the North Platte disaster had been more than anyone could take. 193 people had died in that one cave-in. Certainly by 7 October it had to be officially admitted that there was an exodus of epic proportion. Nearly two million people were on the move, and the U. S. was faced with a gigantic wave of refugees. Rails, roads and air-lanes were jammed with terrified hordes who had left everything behind to crowd eastward.
All through October hollow-eyed motorists flocked into Tulsa, Topeka, Omaha, Sioux Falls and Fargo. St. Louis was made distributing center for emergency squads which flew everywhere with milk for babies and dog food for evacuating pets. Gasoline trucks boomed west to meet the demand for gas, but once inside the “zone of terror,” as the newspapers now called it, they found their route blocked by eastbound cars on the wrong side of the road. Shops left by their fleeing owners were looted by refugees from further west; an American Airlines plane was wrecked by a mob of would-be passengers in Bismarck, North Dakota. Federal and State troops were called out, but moving two million people was not to be done in an orderly way.
And still the landslip grew larger. The new cliffs gleamed in the autumn sunshine, growing higher as the land beneath them continued its inexorable descent.
On 21 October, at Lubbock, Texas, there was a noise variously described as a hollow roar, a shriek and a deep musical vibration like a church bell. It was simply the tortured rock of the substrata giving way. The second phase of the national disaster was beginning.
The noise traveled due east at better than 85 miles per hour. In its wake the earth to the north “just seemed to collapse on itself like a punctured balloon,” read one newspaper report. “Like a cake that’s failed,” said a Texarkana housewife who fortunately lived a block south of Thayer Street, where the fissure raced through. There was a sigh and a great cloud of dust, and Oklahoma subsided at the astounding rate of about six feet per hour.
At Biloxi, on the Gulf, there had been uneasy shufflings under foot all day. “Not tremors, exactly,” said the captain of a fishing boat which was somehow to ride out the coming flood, “but like as if the land wanted to be somewhere else.”
Everyone in doomed Biloxi would have done well to have been somewhere else that evening. At approximately 8:30 p.m. the town shuddered, seemed to rise a little like the edge of a hall carpet caught in a draft, and sank. So did the entire Mississippi and Alabama coast, at about the same moment. The tidal wave which was to gouge the center from the U. S. marched on the land.
From the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain to the Appalachicola River in Florida, the Gulf coast simply disappeared. Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, Panama City: 200 miles of shoreline vanished, with over two and a half million people. An hour later a wall of water had swept over every town from Dothan, Alabama, to Bogalusa on the Louisiana-Mississippi border.