Ozarks Life Vault: Dec. 3, 1990 - The day Missouri stood still

Dr. Iben Browning predicted a large earthquake along the New Madrid Fault
Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 2:27 PM CST
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NEW MADRID, Mo. (KY3) - When the sun came up over the town of New Madrid on Dec. 3, 1990, folks across five states didn’t know what the day would bring.

Dr. Iben Browning, a New Mexico climatologist with a PhD in zoology made a prediction. In a day before viral content on the Internet, the media picked up on a Browning statement and ran with it.

“My projection for December 2 of this year, plus or minus about two days, is that there is a 50/50 probability of a large earthquake on the New Madrid Fault,” said Dr. Browning in August of 1990.

Once the Wall Street Journal picked up the prediction, it went worldwide. And papers gave Browning credibility. They shared his own admission of correctly predicting the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco. In reality, in early October of that year, he said a major earthquake would happen somewhere in the world on October 16.

While it hit a day later, October 17, people were still amazed. Experts though were not impressed. One told KY3 in 1990 there are earthquakes of a magnitude 6.0 or greater somewhere in the world on average every three days.

But it seemed like it was time for the New Madrid Fault to shift. Back in 1811 and 1812, the strongest-known earthquakes in the world happened here. Reports say they reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and rang church bells in Boston.

That was enough to make this story get national attention from network news.

“Rumors have been flying about the water here at Reelfoot Lake,” NBC News’ Ann Curry reported from the scene. “(The lake) formed in 1811 the last time a colossal quake hit here. People have been calling the sheriff in a panic claiming the lake has been boiling.”

“Boiling, bubbling,” Sheriff Joe Jones of Lake County, Tennessee said. “Sulfur coming out of it. Fish dying. Snakes coming out of the water and so forth.”

Food kits, something called bottled water, and earthquake duck-and-cover drills became the norm for Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

“Building destroyed,” comes over a radio.

The Arkansas National Guard ran through earthquake exercises leading up to the predicted event.

As the day approached, KY3 sent former anchor Tony Beason to New Madrid to report on the horror or hoax.

“Browning’s predictions are based on a theory rejected by almost the entire scientific community,” Beason reported from New Madrid. “On December 2, the moon will be closest to Earth since 1912; about 17,000 miles closer than average. The following day, it will be highest in the sky. At the Full Moon, the Sun, Earth and Moon lie roughly in line. Browning believes that convergence plus closeness of the moon could add up to enough gravitational pull to trigger earthquakes.”

Some folks left the area fearing for their families well being.

“Basically we’re just being safe,” New Madrid resident Michael Place said.

But others traveled hundreds of miles to be at the epicenter. And the shops made sure to cash in on the hoopla with t-shirts made and restaurants creating specials.

As we now know, December 3, 1990, came and went. The only rumble felt in New Madrid? The cars of eager spectators making their way out of town on the day Missouri stood still.

Dr. Iben Browning died a year later.

On November 17 of this year, a 4.0 magnitude quake hit Williamsville, Missouri, which is in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Missouri’s DNR reports the last sizable quake along the New Madrid Fault happened on October 31, 1895.

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