New Madrid celebrates false quake projection

NEW MADRID, Mo. (AP) -- A year after a wild earthquake projection sent this part of the country into a nervous frenzy, the tiny town of New Madrid tried last week to recapture some of the excitement and bring back some of the worry.

Iben Browning, a self-proclaimed climatologist from New Mexico, caused a near panic by projecting a 50-50 chance for a major quake along the New Madrid Fault on or about Dec. 3, 1990.

His widely publicized remarks prompted plenty of anxiety along the fault zone, which runs roughly from Marked Tree, Ark., to this southeast Missouri town. Several schools even canceled classes.

Nothing untoward happened, as it turned out, but Browning, who died in July, achieved a degree of immortality.

``I think Iben Browning Day is here to stay,'' said Jim Bradley, chairman of the New Madrid County Fault Commission. ``He did a great deal for this part of the country.


``He did more in just a few words to heighten our awareness of a serious problem than anybody, and he'll never be forgotten, as far as I'm concerned.''

A year ago, television satellite trucks jammed Main Street, and reporters interrupted business at banks, restaurants, shops and the post office seeking out someone with a snappy turn of phrase.

``I've been to Denver and Orlando in the last year,'' Mary Sue Hicks said of her town's celebrity. ``All I had to say was I'm from New Madrid and immediately they start talking about it.''

The question on everyone's lips was: Will the fame be fleeting?

New Madrid (pronounced New MAD-rid) celebrated the anniversary with discussions and presentations on earthquake preparedness and the dedication of a new wing at the museum.

But only a small number of TV camera crews were in evidence. And at a local tavern, the site of a ``Shake, Rattle and Roll'' repeat party, there were plenty of empty seats.

Angie Holtzhouser, director of the town's Chamber of Commerce, wasn't complaining. The town has a bright future as a tourist destination, she said, pointing to such improvements as new businesses, new highway signs and a surge in the number of tourists.

Visitors Linda and Ray Layton of Rockford, Ill., said they were pleasantly surprised by the range of exhibits at the New Madrid Historical Museum.


``Who's to know?'' Mrs. Layton said. ``Tourist sites have come up from nothing before and it could be very popular.''

Browning's daughter, Evelyn Browning Garriss, said her father wasn't bitter about the commotion and criticism that surrounded his projection, which was based on tidal changes and was dismissed by other scientists.

``What did gratify him was watching the pragmatic way people here in the Midwest responded,'' she said. ``One of the comments he made was that California had to have several quakes and lose thousands of lives before they began to get prepared.''

Seismologists say the fault zone, the site in winter 1811-12 of the country's most powerful earthquake ever, has dozens of tremors each year.

A group of scientists meeting in Indianapolis last week want to rekindle interest in the fault zone and the preparedness of people at risk from earthquakes.

``We're sensing a post-Browning apathy,'' said Kristi Wysong, earthquake program manager for the Indiana State Emergency Management Agency.

Representatives of 10 Latin American countries and 10 states are expected to take part in the conference, which begins Wednesday and is sponsored by the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, a grouping of scientists and state officials.

Its participants will include Marilyn Quayle, the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle.

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