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THE QUESTION is not if the middle of the United States will be rocked by a major earthquake, but when.

As we reported last week, experts predict there is a 90% chance that a major earthquake will occur in the next 50 years on the New Madrid fault, which lies beneath the Mississippi Valley. A New Madrid earthquake could occur tomorrow, it could occur next year, it could occur after our lifetimes.

Although the last major quake on this fault zone occurred more than 100 years ago, it was by no means the first such quake. Some of the most powerful quakes ever to hit the United States occurred on the New Madrid fault in the winter of 1811-1812. The seismic area remains one of the most active in the country.

Just as experts are certain a major New Madrid quake is inevitable, they also are convinced of one other thing: that the majority of businesses and communities most exposed to such a catastrophe are woefully unprepared.

If there was ever a case for risk management to step into the breach, this is it. We urge risk managers not only to begin working to minimize their own organizations' exposures to loss, but also to raise awareness of this potential peril within their communities.

To be sure, it is difficult to prepare for a peril that has such low frequency. A devastating quake has not hit the New Madrid zone in our lifetimes. Yet the hazard is real, and the threat from such a quake to a company's facilities, people and ability to continue operating is very real.

In addition, insurers and reinsurers are waking up to their exposures to this peril and increasingly will press for larger deductibles, higher rates and a reduction of their aggregate exposures in the region.

Risk reduction efforts by employers, therefore, not only ensure they will be in better shape after a quake, but that they also pay more stable insurance rates than the less-prepared.

There are many sources of information about the earthquake risk, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information, and the Central United States Earthquake Consortium. In some communities, such as Memphis, Tenn., business and government coalitions have been formed to assess and improve disaster preparedness. The Internet also can be a source of leads for obtaining additional information.

We encourage risk managers to learn more about their exposure to this seismic zone and also to take steps to educate others within their organizations and within their communities.

Risk managers far beyond the Mississippi Valley also should be aware of their considerable exposure to New Madrid losses. Businesses that rely on transcontinental supply routes, energy transmission lines that pass through the region and those with suppliers and customers in the New Madrid zone, to name but a few contingent exposures, should work to minimize their possible losses.

Preparedness will mean the difference between surviving a quake and continuing to operate, or being shaken out of business permanently.