The big news is that the major earthquake didn't strike last week along the New Madrid fault line as predicted by one expert.

But what if it had happened and what if it had been a real shaker, 8.5 on the Richter scale, the same intensity that occurred along the same fault line nearly 200 years ago?The tentative answer, as produced by a "war-gaming" session last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, is that such an event would be a human, political, economic and environmental disaster for which the United States is unprepared.

The impact would stretch far beyond the quake area, shaking the foundations of the banking and insurance industries and stretching the resources of the federal government and local governments to the breaking point and beyond.

In an artfully crafted scenario, about 120 members of Congress, administration officials, private executives, journalists and local and state officials acted out roles in the all-day CSIS exercise.

The starting point of the exercise was that a monster earthquake, 8.5 on the Richter scale, flattened much of an area running from northern Mississippi to southern Illinois.

The federal government's ability to come to the rescue, the exercise showed, is vastly overestimated, partly because many of the emergency aircraft and vehicles are in the Middle East, part of Operation Desert Shield.