NEW MADRID, MO. -- It really was a dark and stormy night here, and most of the old cliches had been used again and again in this bucolic hamlet on the shores of the muddy Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri.
The town of 3,300 people was weathering Day Three yesterday of an invasion of reporters and photographers from around the country. They flocked like earnest vultures because an elusive business consultant named Iben Browning had predicted a 50-50 chance that a killer earthquake would rock the region yesterday, give or take a day or two.
As of last night, however, the U.S. Geological Survey reported no seismic activity hereabouts. The National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., said the lone major tremor registered yesterday in the country was a 3.5 temblor centered near Ely, Nev.
Or, as Randy Updike of the USGS office that tracks earthquakes and volcanoes put it, "No big quakes. All quiet."
At ground zero in New Madrid, the only tremors were provided by the pounding music from a jukebox in Hap's Lounge, a honky-tonk hosting a marathon "Shake, Rattle and Roll" party.
Updike and his scientific colleagues almost unanimously condemned Browning's projections as nothing better than fancy guesswork. But erroneous media reports that Browning had accurately predicted the Loma Prieta temblor last year gave his credibility a big boost and sent residents in New Madrid and other towns along the fault zone in four states into extreme distress.
Scattered school districts in Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois and Tennessee canceled classes yesterday. At least one school district dispatched a special panel of experts, including a farmer, to keep an eye on cats, dogs and pigs, just in case the animals started acting spooky, a sign that could be interpreted as a harbinger of an earthquake.
The locals here, however, were not watching animals. They were watching the media. Traffic on Main Street slowed to a crawl Sunday and yesterday as cars and pickups cruised the avenue, their occupants gawking at hundreds of reporters and photographers.
It was not unusual to witness a television crew interviewing a local resident, while other locals videotaped the interview and a second television crew taped the locals taping the television crew.
"Everybody gets their 15 minutes of say, and we're getting ours," said New Madrid attorney Lynn Bock, who was wandering the streets with his own video equipment. Bock's office in the old city hall was closed yesterday, with a sign explaining, "The circus is coming to town."
At Tom's Grill on Main Street, the TV crews were so hungry for local color that they interviewed at least one reporter from a large East Coast daily paper, mistaking him for a local. The reporter obliged by offering laconic news bites while munching one of the proprietor's famous "quake burgers."
Only two restaurants were serving food. A third closed because of the earthquake forecast. Friendly residents took to inviting reporters home for supper, and a catering company set out plates. Bobby Tom's Barbecue from St. Louis was selling ribs by the levee.
Reporters took over the town's only inn, the Cabana Motel and Camp Ground. "We have 41 guests from the media," said Bob Patel, the long-suffering innkeeper who juggled the motel's two long-distance lines so reporters could file their stories. His spouse, Salina Patel, cleaned rooms because her maid had fled for fear of the killer quake.
All week, there were rumors that an angel was hitchhiking in the area warning motorists away from New Madrid. The area was in fact the scene of a large and deadly quake at the turn of the century, an event that experts say will be repeated some day, though probably not this week.
One person who never did appear was Browning, 72. His home telephone number outside Albuquerque has been busy for several days, and the operator said it was off the hook yesterday. According to the Associated Press, Browning's daughter said the self-trained climatologist and newsletter writer was out of town.
Updike, admitting frustration about how scientists may be viewed, said, "Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the scientists standing shoulder to shoulder" said Browning's prediction is "not science, not valid and not believable."