New Madrid, Mo., Prays That a Dire Prediction Proves to Be Faulty

updated 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Mayor Dick Phillips, like the other customers here in Rosie's Colonial Tavern—like everyone else, in fact, who grew up in New Madrid, Mo.—knows about the fault line named for the tiny town (pop. 3,335) tucked away in the "bootheel" of southeastern Missouri. "We've lived on it all our lives," Phillips says. The 120-mile fault starts in Cairo, Ill.—about 60 miles north of New Madrid—then makes its seismically uneasy way south through Kentucky and Tennessee and ends in Marked Tree, Ark.

Everyone in this cotton-farming river-bottom country knows that early in the morning of Dec. 16, 1811, three quakes later estimated at 8.0 on the Richter scale shook the land along the fault as if it were a picnic blanket being flipped clean of crumbs. Solid ground turned to quicksand. In the Mississippi River, which runs past the town, islands sank, cascades appeared; the great river even leaped free of its banks, flowing north for a few hours. (The region was sparsely populated in those days, so casualties were few—only three in New Madrid.) In the next five months, some 2,000 other quakes and shocks hit the area.

Everyone here also knows—and many seismologists concur—that a big quake is likely to shake New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) again in the next 30 years or so. The Mayor tries to be philosophical. "To me," says Phillips, 65, "it's a lot like dying—you know it's coming, but you don't know when."

Now, however, news about when has been provided by an enigmatic New Mexico climatologist, Dr. Iben Browning, 72, who claims there is an "enhanced probability" that a big one (7.0 to 7.6 on the Richter scale, perhaps) will strike the New Madrid fault zone Dec. 3, give or take 48 hours. All seismologists agree with Browning that the sun and moon create strong tidal forces that pull on the earth's surface, but they doubt his belief that those forces can trigger catastrophic activity in what could be called geologically "loaded" areas. Well, those tidal forces, controlled by the tugging of the sun and moon, will be at a 60-year peak on Dec. 3, and the New Madrid Fault, according to Browning's complicated analysis, will be ticklish.

The local citizens might have shrugged off Browning's jeremiad if rumors had not spread that last year, speaking to a San Francisco convention, he had predicted the Bay Area disaster six days in advance. Since word of Browning's prediction reached New Madrid and surrounding areas last spring, people have been preparing for the worst. Schools will be closed Dec. 3 and 4. Emergency preparedness teams have instructed town meetings about what will happen if the earth starts to heave. And townspeople are racing to stores, frantically buying survival supplies. "Blankets, flashlights, can openers—the works." says Mary Ramsey, manager of a Wal-Mart about 20 miles outside New Madrid. "Three hundred and fifty more flashlights came in today. They'll be gone tomorrow. People are terrified." They've also been delaying mortgage payments and talking to their insurance agents about quake coverage.

Of course, there are nonbelievers. "Me? I'm gonna be here." says Virginia Carlson, director of New Madrid's history museum. She's been selling fund-raising T-shirts with such legends as IT'S OUR FAULT for a decade. Now, with sales jumping, "I have big plans for January," Carlson says. "We're going to extend the back wall there and build a real office." She admits, though, that she'll be tense on That Day. "I'm going to jump three feet in the air every time a truck rumbles by." she says.

Lori Bass, 23, a waitress at Rosie's, doesn't care about January. "I'm leaving," she says. "I know a lot of people who are—maybe about 15."

The man responsible for this mini-exodus—Dr. Browning—has little more to say on the subject. A $2,500-a-day consultant who has carved a curious professional niche for himself forecasting economic conditions based on the weather. Browning has for years been speaking to blue-chip business groups, sounding like a combination of Nostradamus and Louis Rukeyser. One thing Browning knows for certain is that his own death is imminent—in a matter of months, he says, as a result of diabetes that went undiagnosed for six years. However, Browning emerged from his home in Sandia Park, N.Mex., last week to speak at a builders association meeting outside St. Louis. He repeated his New Madrid prediction (a "50-50 probability") and went on to predict a major depression, of the fiscal sort, by 1993.

That businessmen would listen to Browning isn't quite as strange as, say, the Reagans arranging summitry with help from Nancy's astrologer. His intellectual equipage is daunting: three Ph.D.s from the University of Texas (in physiology, genetics and bacteriology, but not climatology) and almost 70 patented inventions (including bombsights used in Europe during World War II). Then again, he has argued that periods of warm weather produce messianic religious figures, such as Jesus, while cool periods produce reformers, such as Martin Luther.

Among geologists and seismologists, Browning's standing is shaky. After the media began marveling at his foresight, the U.S. Geological Survey organized a study team to look into his methodology. A first step was scrutinizing the transcript of his San Francisco speech. Browning, the team reported, had not specified that the quake would hit San Francisco or any city. He had said that there would be a quake somewhere that day. "The prediction," says Duncan Agnew, professor of earth sciences at the University of San Diego, "was about as accurate as throwing darts at a calendar." Browning counters that the panel's transcript was not an accurate one.

Back in Missouri, though, people's knees tell them a different story. Small temblors aren't that unusual in the area. But since the morning of Sept. 26, when a 4.6 quake—the biggest in almost 15 years—jolted the village of New Hamburg, 38 miles from New Madrid, there has been a run of window-rattlers, including a 3.6 on Nov. 8. Backing up the ground-level evidence is one of Browning's few scientific supporters, David Stewart, a seismic expert at Southeast Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau. "He's not a crack-pot—he's a genius," says Stewart, 53, who first met Browning last April. "The guy is not using a crystal ball."

One point, at least, is clear. Until now, not nearly enough has been done to prepare for what might happen when the New Madrid Fault shudders once more, as someday it will. "Missouri is somewhere between California and Armenia in terms of its preparations and readiness for a major quake," Stewart says. "A lot closer to Armenia than California." (An estimated 55,000 people died as a result of Armenia's 1988 quake, a 6.9 on the Richter scale.) But, with the Browning scare, emergency plans are proceeding feverishly here and in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Illinois and Indiana.

Vernon Rogers, 53, is prepared; he has taken out quake insurance for his New Madrid grocery store. And he's prepared to do business. "Most of your stores are going to be open," he says. "Dec. 3—that's a big day around here. That's the day all the Social Security checks come in. Anybody who hasn't left will be out shopping." Unless there's a recession.

—Tom Gliatto, Ron Ridenhour in New Madrid

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