Media Disastermongering in 1990

OVER THE COURSE of the next century and more [after 1811–1812], the New Madrid earthquakes gradually receded from public awareness, as the New Madrid fault system produced just two shocks greater than magnitude 6.0 in the 180 years following the 1811–12 sequence—a 6.5 in 1843 and a 6.8 in 1895. An occasional magazine article would appear and several epic poems and novels using the quakes as a setting were written, but in general, the largest series of earthquakes ever to hit the North American continent faded from memory—until 1990, when a prediction by Dr. Iben Browning suddenly brought the New Madrid fault system to the forefront once again.

Browning was a climatological and business consultant who claimed to have predicted the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta quake that struck northern California during the 1989 World Series, causing extensive damage in the San Francisco Bay area. Browning also claimed to have predicted other large earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, including the 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington.

Addressing a business seminar in Atlanta in February 1988, Browning told his audience that an earthquake could strike the Memphis area in early December 1990. More than a year and a half later, on November 27, 1989, a short Associated Press story made the prediction public, and the following day, a longer story appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Two weeks later, speaking to the Missouri Governor’s Conference on Agriculture, Browning repeated his prediction that there was a 50 percent probability that a magnitude 6.5–7.5 earthquake would hit the New Madrid area on December 3, 1990. Browning’s prognostication was based on tidal forces, which were going to be extraordinarily high on December 2 and 3.

Suddenly, people were interested in the New Madrid fault system again. The Lorna Prieta quake in October 1989 had received widespread television coverage, and the repeated viewings of the worst of the damage had created a climate in which Browning’s prediction was taken seriously by the media and the public. Despite the fact that the connection between tidal forces and earthquakes has never been proven, and despite the refutation of Browning’s prediction by several seismologists, including the Center for Earthquake Research and Information director Arch Johnston, media outlets all over the country began picking up the story and running with it.

The issue was given further apparent credence in June 1990 when David Stewart threw his support behind the Browning forecast. Stewart, a geophysicist, was then the director of the Center for Earthquake Studies at Southeast Missouri State University and one of Missouri’s leading earthquake preparedness experts. On July 21, in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled, “Quake Prediction Taken Seriously,” Stewart was quoted as saying that Browning’s “methodology does seem to be promising and worthy of serious and thorough consideration.”

In fact, Browning’s methodology was highly questionable—he had no physical model for his prediction and showed no verifiable evidence to back up his prediction. Moreover, it turned out that his “predictions” of the Lorna Prieta quake and the Mount St. Helens eruption were also suspect. Browning’s doctorate was in zoology; he was a self-taught climatologist with no scientific expertise in seismology or earthquake prediction. After Stewart joined Browning, a number of seismologists made efforts to debunk the prediction, but the cow was already out of the barn.

The Associated Press picked up the Post-Dispatch piece, and it was reprinted in newspapers throughout the New Madrid Seismic Zone region. Stories then ran in major newspapers all across the country, including the New York Times, Wall StreetJournal, Chicago Tribune, and Miami Herald. Soon the national media jumped in. Time and Newsweek published articles and USA Today ran close to a dozen stories. Browning appeared on Good Morning America. Johnston was interviewed for the Today show. World News Tonight and NOVA planned segments on the New Madrid fault system.

Earthquake and natural disaster agencies, together with organizations like the Red Cross, unwittingly exacerbated the crisis by sending out literature on earthquake preparedness without also providing a disclaimer regarding Browning’s prediction. Throughout the New Madrid Seismic Zone, agencies were inundated with requests for information. National Guard units in Missouri and Arkansas conducted earthquake drills. Department stores passed out survival-tip literature and stocked up on blankets, bottled water, and first-aid kits. Many school districts announced that schools would close on December 3. A minor 4.6 tremor near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on September 26, made the situation that much worse, as many people interpreted the event to be a foreshock of the anticipated December quake.

Except for Stewart, the entire scientific community was aligned against the Browning prediction. “Earthquake experts across the country consider this ‘prediction’ ridiculous and unscientific,” wrote Douglas A. Wiens, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University of St. Louis, in an op-ed piece for the Post-Dispatch on September 30. “The public should disregard all predictions about the specific date that an earthquake will occur. No one can make such predictions. Though scientists have investigated many different factors that could signal an impending quake, none has proved reliable.” Nevertheless, the media continued to treat the Browning prediction as genuine news.

In mid-October, the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council (NEPEC) released a study that thoroughly refuted Browning’s prediction, but still the media hype went on. By the beginning of December, the New Madrid Seismic Zone region was in a state of near-hysteria.

On the weekend of December 1–2, a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed in New Madrid. More than thirty satellite trucks from television and radio networks worldwide were parked in downtown New Madrid, with its population of just over 3,300. Church marquees advertised sermons with earthquake-inspired themes like, “Preparing for the Big One? Are You Prepared for the Last One?” Cars prowled the town displaying homemade signs along the same lines: “New Madrid save your city fast and repent.” Rev. Frank McRae of the St. John’s United Methodist Church cheerfully admitted, “You don’t get breaks like this often.” Tourists roamed the streets, and the Chamber of Commerce sold “official” earthquake T-shirts and sweatshirts. Tom’s Grill offered quake burgers that were served divided down the middle by a jagged line, while McDonald’s advertised free coffee, “a price you can shake & rattle about.” Near the Mississippi River, the Faultline Express Band played earthquake songs. A California psychologist featured an Iben Browning doll that children were encouraged to pummel as a way of dealing with their fears about the earthquake prediction.

December 3 came and went with no earthquake, of course. The tourists and media crews quickly left, and after several months in the limelight, New Madrid went back to being an ordinary Mississippi River town.

The Browning prediction underscored the fact that there is only one thing certain about the New Madrid fault system, and that is that it will go off again. It could be in two hundred years. Or it could be tomorrow.

SOURCE: When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquake, by Jay Feldman (Free Press, 2005), pp. 238-241

Plus ça change …

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One response to “Media Disastermongering in 1990

  1. Pingback: Science-based predictions that fizzled « Crush Liberalism

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