Fear Along the Faultline

July 18, 2005 - Posted at 11:30p.m. CDT


New Madrid, MO - Scientists say a major earthquake is brewing along the New Madrid fault.    Experts can't predict the boiling point, but one scientist tried.  In the winter of 1990, scientist Iben Browning created a media frenzy when he predicted the exact day a major earthquake would occur along the New Madrid fault line.                     

The historic town ofNew Madrid, Missouri is known for what didn’t happen more than a decade ago.  N ow, the people there continue to live life in a precarious position, with the certainty of an earthquake to come. 


On December 3, 1990, a caravan of people set up shop in the tiny town.  One life long resident describes the scene as a “circus.”  The city was expecting the big one – an earthquake to rival the infamous 1811-1812 Quake.  Lynn Bock, a New Madrid resident, remembers that winter; “Everybody was running around with cameras.  There were camera crews everywhere.  It was kind of fun to turn the tide on them and say, ‘well, if you’re going to look at us, then we’re going to look at you.'” 


Bock caught the whole media frenzy on his own video camera, and the footage gives a valuable glimpse into how a normally quiet town was transformed into a media Mecca.  Ella LaValle, who directs the museum in town, says the experience was surreal.  “We’re taking pictures of the media who were taking pictures of us, and it was just really crazy,” says LaValle.

Fourteen years ago, a normally quiet main street was filled with TV trucks, camera equipment and anxious reporters.  You have to understand the earthquake history of the town in order to understand the mindset of its people.  “People lost focus of the earthquake prediction and began to focus more on the media circus.   As a result, it became more of a party atmosphere rather than of fear and preparation,” explains Bock.

Dooms day came and went.  Nothing happened.  The reporters finally packed up and left, but they did leave a piece of history behind – stories for life long residents to tell their children.  T he tee-shirt sales from that week went toward building a new addition to the city museum.  “Over the year, as the earthquake awareness has subsided, you can look at the number of visitors, and, it’s subsided as well,” says Bock.

People in New Madrid say they coexist with the ground shaking.  “We do think about it, but not on a daily basis….tremors have rattled windows or knocked canned goods off grocery shelves,” says LaValle.

The Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information records all of those tremors.   Instruments buried along the New Madrid Fault detect movement below the earth’s surface.  Gary Patterson, with CERI, says, “The New Madrid seismic zone produces about 200 small earthquakes every year.  Only about ten or 20 of those are even large enough to be felt.”  Despite all the earthquake models, diagrams and simulators, scientists have no way of predicting the next big quake. 

People in New Madrid know that the big one could be coming, but, if and when is the big question that may never be answered.