The biggest non-event ever

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 1,218 views 

Do you remember the devastating Dec. 3, 1990, earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone? You know, the one that claimed thousands of lives, destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure including bridges, roads and pipelines, and left homes, businesses and schools either in ruins or swallowed up altogether by gaping holes in the Earth’s surface.

Yeah, well, neither do I, nor does anyone else because the New Madrid earthquake of 1990 was perhaps the biggest natural disaster that never happened. What many of us do remember is the fear, anticipation and in some cases downright panic surrounding the first few days of December a little more than three decades ago.

Dr. Iben Browning “projected” there was a 50-50 chance a major quake would strike the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the few days before or after Dec. 3, 1990. The Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1989 carried a story about Browning’s projection, and common sense soon went out the window.

Self-styled climatologist Browning — his doctorate was in biology — had a following in some segments of the business community. He based what he carefully called a projection, but others soon deemed a prediction, on tidal forces and he was said to expect strong ones around that date that couldn’t guarantee a quake but could act as a trigger.

In a 2015 article for BuzzFeed, writer Thomas Gounley noted that after initially being publicized in late 1989, Browning’s New Madrid projection eventually became more detailed, as he continued to give talks and lectures. The U.S. Geological Survey would ultimately summarize Browning’s projection in the following manner:

• A 50% probability of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake in the New Madrid region on December 2-3, plus or minus two days (December 1-5).
• A greater than 50% probability of a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in Tokyo, Japan, during that same period, and a slightly less than 50% chance of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 quake on California’s Hayward fault.
• 87% probability that at least one of the three would occur.

Though the scientific community said then and now there is not enough information to develop a reliable way to predict when earthquakes might occur, some members of the public likely reasoned that if science can predict hurricanes and tornadoes, then surely scientists can predict earthquakes. If so, then that faulty line of reasoning meant there must be something to Browning’s projection.

Add in the fact that the New Madrid Fault Zone produced one of the largest earthquakes — in fact, an unusual series of earthquakes — in the continental United States in modern history in the winter of 1811-12, plus the zone is one of the most active in the nation, and the perfect storm of hysteria was inevitable.

By the middle of 1990, ads selling videos of Browning’s presentation about his projection began appearing in regional newspapers and the trickle of attention became a flood. Businesses in the seismic zone began advertising disaster survival kits for sale. One firearms dealer even touted its availability of self-defense weapons, presumably in the event that post-earthquake anarchy broke out and one had to protect what was left of home and hearth from marauding gangs.

But it wasn’t just the advertising side of the news business that joined the party.

Reporters and editors caught the excitement. School boards were canceling classes for Dec. 3, and governments were canceling events and organizations postponed meetings. The scientific community was slow to respond and by the time it attempted to do so, it was too late to avoid irrational responses to one guy’s wacky theory. To paraphrase the late Nixon staffer H.R. Haldeman, by then the toothpaste was out of the tube and couldn’t be squeezed back in.

By D-Day, more than 200 satellite trucks had descended on tiny New Madrid, Mo., as had countless reporters, curiosity seekers and opportunistic souvenir venders. I suppose they were disappointed when the day came and went with not even with a whimper.

What occasioned the 21-year trip down memory lane was another non-event just a few weeks ago, just before 9 p.m., Nov. 17. Sitting in my usual semi-dozing state while pretending to keep up with the show on TV, something shook the house and my chair for a few seconds. We figured out quickly it was a small earthquake, something that occurs hundreds of times a year in the Zone. The majority of them are too small to be felt.

Soon, social media postings generated by government agencies, duly quoted and re-Tweeted by traditional media and the public at large, not only confirmed that what many of us in this area had felt was indeed a small quake. We might have been alarmed for a second, but about the time we figured it out, it was over.

Anthony Coy, an experienced professional who heads Craighead County’s Department of Emergency Management, said he fielded few inquiries and no reports of property or infrastructure damage.

What the very small quake of Nov. 17 did do, however, Coy said, was remind people in this area that we do live in an active seismic zone, one that is also subject to frequent tornadoes and flooding, and preparation before disasters is a smart idea.

Most of us had either pushed the memory of all that chaos surrounding something that didn’t occur deep down in our memory banks or tried to forget it entirely. It was a classic case of science being unable to debunk a ridiculous story before it got traction and put fear into the masses.

Gee, I wonder if that ever happens today.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.