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Will the Mississippi Flow Backward in 2010?

Here's a prediction that no one wants to hear: a major earthquake in 2010. We've had all sorts of financial tsunamis during the past two years, but, with the exception of Hurricane Ike in 2008, natural disasters have been few. Mercifully we've been spared the magnitude of earthquake that devastated Northridge, California in 1994 or created the huge wall of water that killed 150,000 people in Indonesia in 2004.

But to remind us that the potential for cataclysm still exists, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reports that the New Madrid fault line has been rumbling again, with four small quakes in southeast Missouri in the past week. The largest was a magnitude 3.1 felt in four states: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.

There was no damage reported, other than shaking ornaments off the Christmas tree and a few howling dogs. But such occurrences scare the heck out of insurers. They know that a major quake has the potential of a nuclear explosion, and can make even the worst storm look small by comparison.

Usually California gets all the hype regarding earthquakes, in part because some of the worst, like the 1906 San Francisco quake, have taken place there, and the state remains precariously perched on the San Andreas fault at the eastern edge of the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire."

But Midwesterners recall that one of the worst boneshakers on record took place in New Madrid, Missouri in 1811. Fortunately few people lived there then, but it was so strong that it sent dishes flying off the cupboard as far away as Washington, D.C. And it actually reversed the course of the mighty Mississippi River, sending it flowing northward for a time.

The nation's largest publicly traded property insurer Allstate, with roots in the Midwest, clearly remembers. The Northbrook, Illinois-based insurer refuses to write earthquake insurance, except where states force it to.

But other insurers have a simple solution. They buy "catastrophe bonds," which protect them against the outside possibility of a quake. The financial markets are more than happy to write these bonds because they don't expect a financial disaster to occur at the same time as a natural one. Both, however, are unpredictable. The U.S. may not see another for years to come. Just don't tell that to the people who live in New Madrid.

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