NEW MADRID, MO., DEC. 1 -- Sparked by the pronouncements of a mysterious, iconoclastic business consultant named Iben Browning, who says there's a good chance of a killer earthquake leveling the region Monday, people who live atop the New Madrid fault zone have gone a bit bonkers.
Grandmothers are setting up tents in cotton fields. Mothers and children are being shipped out of state. People are suddenly taking vacations to more geologically benign locales. No matter that the scientific community has almost unanimously condemned Browning's prediction as no better than throwing darts at a calendar.
A circus atmosphere is taking over the little town of New Madrid (pronounced New MAD-rid). A preacher is prowling the streets in his van, broadcasting "The End Is Near" over a pair of loudspeakers. The governor plans to arrive Monday to eat lunch.
They're buying earthquake insurance. They're buying batteries, flashlights, kerosene, charcoal and T-shirts that say: "Visit New Madrid While It's Still Here." Or at least the reporters and camera crews are buying T-shirts. For the news media made Iben Browning, and their descent on this town 150 miles south of St. Louis is as much a part of the story as the potential of an earthquake itself.
On Friday night, New Madrid patrolmen Raymond Creasy and Alvin Miller took a visiting reporter on a cruise through town, pointing out the sights, including the old sawmill, the grain and fertilizer silos and the town's newest attraction, a fleet of television vans parked on the levee that holds back the Mississippi River. Mayor Dick Phillips said last week he might even rope off a few square blocks to accommodate the television crews. A couple of radio stations have been broadcasting all week from a bar they have dubbed "Shake Central."
"The people who have lived here all their lives are ready to have some fun," said insurance salesman H.H. "Bud" Townsend, who is busy taping the hoopla on his new camcorder. "I don't believe anybody will believe this ever happened unless I record it."
Townsend said this is the biggest thing to happen in New Madrid since it reenacted a Civil War battle a few years ago. "Maybe even bigger."
They may be residents of the squinty-eyed "show me" state, a citizenry renowned for not being fools. But school districts in the five counties of southeast Missouri's boot-heel have canceled classes Monday and Tuesday largely because principals think few students will show up. Scattered schools in four states have canceled classes.
"My own 7-year-old son said to me, 'You know, every time somebody says earthquake, I get the creeps,' " said Carlotta Koski, owner of New Madrid Coiffures, who would have kept her five children home Monday even if the New Madrid schools had not announced they would be closed during the "quake days."
"The kids are getting stomachaches," said Officer Creasy.
Residents of New Madrid and surrounding hamlets are not completely crazy for being on edge. There is a major and potentially deadly fault line running beneath southwest Illinois, part of Missouri and on into Arkansas. People in seven states and cities as far away as Memphis, Little Rock and St. Louis would be rocked, perhaps fatally, if a large quake struck. The region did suffer a series of killing temblors in 1811 and 1812, which scientists said would have registered a whopping 8 on the Richter scale if such a measurement had existed then.
While many people here claim to have heard of someone leaving town, most residents seem to be staying put. An imprecise and unscientific measure of local unease, a sort of Richter scale for panic gauged by interviewing a dozen residents in cafes, beauty parlors and shops, would register about a 4.7, with 8 being fear-crazed mayhem and 3 being a barely perceptible sense of impending doom.
"People aren't standing on their heads going crazy," said Johnny Dixon, owner of B&K Hardware. Instead, they're buying flashlight batteries, straps to hold their water heaters upright and cans of pork and beans. But most people seem to be going about their daily lives as usual, Dixon said.
Jehovah's Witnesses are still going door to door. "We're keeping on with the ministry," said local elder Louis Greer. Even their weekly sermon, "Dealing with an Ungodly World," has not been changed to accommodate the predictions of Iben Browning, although ministers for other denominations are reportedly going to work the earthquake into their message.
Only a few shopkeepers plan to close. Most merchants have seen the earthquake prediction as a boon to business in otherwise slow economic times. "Keep 'em coming!" exclaimed the woman behind the counter at the local Texaco gas station and food store.
"To my knowledge, no one has sold their house and left town," said Shirley Perry, a New Madrid real estate agent and member of the local Chamber of Commerce. "That would be extreme."
All this excitement was sparked by Iben Browning, a scientist, businessman and self-taught climatologist, who predicted that the positions of the Earth and moon would create greater than usual tidal forces that would trigger earthquakes in New Madrid, Tokyo and San Francisco. Browning has stated there is a 50 percent chance of a quake measuring 6.5 to 7.5 on the Richter scale striking the New Madrid region on Dec. 3, give or take a day.
Browning's projections have been attacked by a panel of earthquake experts gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The group found no scientifically valid method behind Browning's statements.
As for Browning's oft-repeated claims that he predicted the Loma Prieta earthquake a week in advance, the USGS group obtained taped transcripts of Browning's talks and found no reference to North America, let alone the San Francisco Bay area. Browning had simply said an earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale would strike somewhere. Geologists point out that there are 110 such earthquakes each year, meaning one occurs roughly every three days.
"Without specifying a location, Browning's statements can hardly be considered an accurate prediction," siad Robert Wesson, chief of the USGS Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering, in Reston.
Browning has only given sporadic interviews to reporters. He writes a newsletter predicting weather events, as well as earthquakes and volcanoes and often gives after-dinner talks at business conventions, during which he predicts the future. In addition to his projections for an earthquake tomorrow, Browning believes climatic conditions will spark an economic depression in the United States by 1992.
Many residents in New Madrid are unsure what to make of Browning and his feud with the scientific establishment. "He believes what he is saying," said beautician Koski. "Maybe he knows something I don't."
Nevertheless, Koski said, she isn't too worried; if it comes, she said, it comes. Earthquake experts said sooner or later, the New Madrid Fault will produce another large temblor. It already produces dozens of smaller, mostly unfelt quakes each year, but the geologists said it is irresponsible to pinpoint, as Browning has, a date for "the big one."
"I believe that if nothing happens on Monday, they won't ever believe anything from now on," said Officer Creasy.
That reminds Townsend, the insurance salesman, of a joke. "You know how everybody is supposed to stock up on water?" Townsend said. "Well, my wife -- I call her the little red hen because she has red hair -- anyway, my wife has done that. Now the joke is that the day after the earthquake doesn't come, we'll all be drown in the flood caused by everybody dumping out their water."