Ode to Iben Browning: Ten Years After

Editorial written by Christopher Morrill on Sunday, December 3, 2000

from the the-sky-is-falling-the-ground-is-cracking dept.

Southeast Missouri has a dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about. It doesn't seem like ten years, but the anniversary is here.

December 3rd, 1990: the big bad earthquake that never happened. Near-hysteria over the infamous earthquake prediction was running so rampant then; but immediately afterward, no one admitted being the slightest bit scared. Not even a little bit.

This is called "selective amnesia". It's like finding anyone who will admit voting for Bill Clinton. (Much less twice.) Or people who will admit being a little nervous about Y2K. You can't find anyone. But obviously those people existed, because the hysteria did happen. Everyone has just chosen to conveniently forget it.

It's December 3rd, 2000. Ten years have gone by since Iben Browning ruined a perfectly good day for everyone.

So, where were you?

I have always thought the public alarm over the phantom December 3rd earthquake would make an excellent novel. Some of the stuff that went on was almost comical. I would take on such a task myself, but I have a bad allergy to writing non-fiction. Too much agonizing research comes with it. Nah; it's so much easier just to make stuff up.

I'm still surprised no one has written about it, though. Like December of 2000 with our election bugaboo, December 1990 was an interesting time to be alive. The buildup was so frenzied, and the ending so anticlimactic. But while the frenzy was underway, it sure was an interesting ride.

For those of you with profound selective amnesia, who don't recall any of this, there were three steps. There were three ingredients that cooked up a mean little earthquake scare:

Ingredient #1:

An appetizer of quaking with a hint of more to come.

It all started with a moderate earthquake that jarred the Cape Girardeau area on September 26, 1990. The epicenter was in, of all places, New Hamburg. Magnitude 4.6 on the Richter scale, it scared the living shit out of quite a few people.

Including myself. It was my freshman year at SEMO and I was in the Social Sciences building in the middle of a sleepy Political Science class. This was one of the oldest buildings on campus and I was fully aware of that fact as it shook all around me. A few expletives escaped my lips as I pondered my immediate demise. The threat of impending death was quite exciting, in a way that makes me kind of understand why some people enjoy skydiving.

And nobody ran screaming out of the building. Everyone in my classroom was too scared to do anything but freeze in terror.

Nobody died, though. I celebrated my escape from death by taking the rest of the day off.

Damage was relatively minor. The psychological damage to southeast Missouri, however, was profound. It had been years since anyone had really felt any significant earthquakes at all. Now the public, suddenly, couldn't talk enough about tremors.

Then some smartass says: "Hey, some guy predicted an even bigger one for December!"

And it was all downhill from there.

Ingredient #2:

A somewhat ambiguous recipe that may or may not actually cook up a big main dish.

This step actually came first, but it wouldn't have meant a hill of beans had Step #1 never happened.

A vague prediction by a climatologist (Iben Browning) for the increased risk of a major earthquake on the New Madrid Fault around December 3rd, 1990 was suddenly a big deal after September 26th.

"Major" would mean 6.0 on the Richter Scale or above. There was talk of monstrous quakes upwards of 8.0, with massive destruction over thousands of square miles, collapse of infrastructure, millions of deaths, anarchy, rampant starvation, and the rest of the usual stuff you would expect to see on an average Tuesday in Bangladesh.

And that was just the start of the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The prediction was based upon dubious methods such as tides and the gravitational pull of the moon. The fact that Mr. Browning died shortly after this affair does raise the amusing concept that the whole thing was a practical joke.

The popular belief was that Browning had successfully predicted the 1989 Loma Prieta ("World Series") earthquake, though that documentation was foggy as well. This fed the fire.

Following the little "precursor" quake (or as some alarmists called it, a "foreshock"), Browning's prediction got a very big spotlight.

Not restrained by logic, the general public of southeast Missouri ate all this up and starting stocking up on beef jerky, bottled water and ammo.

Most scientists, however, roundly dismissed Browning and his prediction as a bunch of hokey crackpot pseudo-science.

Notice I said "most." That is important, thanks to the next ingredient.

Ingredient #3:

A reputable chef that thinks maybe the recipe might just make a decent dish.

Dr. David Stewart was, at the time, the director for the Center for Earthquake Studies at SEMO. Note I said "was". He would be ushered out not long after this whole drama played out. His penchant for recruiting violations and inability to get his team into the NCAA Tournament finally got him fired.

(Oh, wait. That wasn't Stewart. That was Ron Shumate. Never mind.)

Anyway, Dr. Stewart added fuel to the fire by refusing to say Browning was full of hot air. He never went so far as to endorse the theory, but he didn't rule it out. He urged the public to keep an open mind and that perhaps the earthquake prediction was worth looking at.

A quasi-endorsement by a respected local earthquake expert was the final ingredient of the recipe. The rest, as they say, is history.

The media jumped on the prediction. Public interest, and a mild panic, ensued. By December, it was apparent that we were seeing a once in a lifetime phenomenon.

The tension mounted and mounted. December 3rd that year was a Monday. Most schools ended up being closed, but it wasn't a holiday. Not by most conventional means, anyway.

No, the schools were closed mainly because many parents demanded it. They were afraid of the big earthquake striking in the middle of the day and killing scores of their offspring in their prime. Can't have that, now, can we?

SEMO had classes that day, though attendance was spotty. (Or so I was told. I wasn't there.)

Flashlights, sleeping bags, canned food, batteries, and (of course) booze were flying off the shelves.

Many people took off work.

Many of those people who took off work ended up having "earthquake parties" and were incognito on December 4th.

Right now, all the old coffee shop geniuses and barber shop pundits are experts on constitutional law and the electoral college. The 1990 version of these know-it-alls were the "amateur seismologists". Suddenly, everyone was an earthquake expert. It's all they could talk about. They had opinions, and they shared them with you, whether you liked it or not.

A lot of folks left town, period.

Some spent the weekend camping out, figuring that a tent falling in on them was better than the brick walls of their home.

Some people slept with their shoes on.

Every time a big truck passed by and the floor vibrated, or there was a dynamite blast or a sonic boom, I would get a little flutter in my heart wondering if the Big One was coming.

Some people refused to cross the river bridge at Cape that day, fearing a vehicular swan dive into the murky brown depths as the quake hit.

The national media was zoomed in on our quirky little panic. Some of TV's talking heads were hanging out in tiny bars in New Madrid and New Hamburg, interviewing local eccentrics and hoping "The Big One" to strike while the cameras were rolling.

In the end, it never happened. There was no big quake. That was 3650 days ago, and there still hasn't been a decent shake. I was bummed, since I never got to use the sleeping bag and the three boxes of emergency Nutty Buddies that I had stashed in the back of my 1983 Mercury Cougar.

But for a few months ten years ago, things were exciting. A little loony, yes, but exciting.

We were the center of the world. That's what was so appealing about the earthquake hysteria was that it was so localized; it was only southeast Missouri, really. We were all in it together.

Under a national microscope, we got to show our asses to the nation. For all the wrong reasons, as it turned out.

But wasn't it kind of fun while it lasted?