Quake forecast gives town the shakes New Madrid braces for disaster Dec. 3

October 29, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW MADRID, Mo. -- It was an earthquake that put tiny New Madrid on the map, and now folks are afraid a quake will remove it.

With apologies to townsfolk like Virgil Wayne, Essie Mae and Pinkie Lee (double names are popular here), New Madrid's just a bump on the map anyway.

"But it's our bump," lamented 49-year-old Ginger DeLisle, who's lived in this sleepy Mississippi River town in southeastern Missouri all her life. "It's all you hear about -- this earthquake that's coming. I swear, they're going to talk us into one yet. I got a sister who's terrified, a kid who's hysterical."

"If you're not nervous," added the effervescent Mrs. DeLisle, "you're a damn fool."

Ever since a New Mexico climatologist predicted that a major earthquake would strike the New Madrid fault Dec. 3-4, residents in the bucolic town of 3,335 people have had the shakes.

Hundreds of people turned out recently for a town meeting on earthquake preparedness -- the first town meeting City Hall has called in memory. Schools have canceled classes for early December, and Mayor Dick Phillips has ordered emergency power generators and stocked up on medical, food and clothing supplies for residents -- just in case.

In nearby Sikeston, where New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) residents go to shop, the Wal-Mart has begun busing in bottled water by the truckload, and the Piggly Wiggly can't keep the video, "Earthquake," in stock. A travel agency is advertising quake-getaways to sunny Cancun for those who would just as soon bake as shake. Nearly 40,000 members of the National Guard in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas will mobilize the first weekend of December for quake-maneuvers.

"We're telling our people they must be prepared to take care of themselves for three days, maybe longer, before city officials can get to them," said matter-of-fact Mayor Phillips, who sells fertilizer for a living. "You know, this is a lot like dying. You begin to die the minute you're born and you make preparations throughout your life. If you knew the date, though, you'd worry yourself to death, and that's what a lot of folks here are doing."

In the winter of 1811-1812, a series of earthquakes rocked the New Madrid fault so fiercely that the Mississippi rolled backward. Hills and islands disappeared, forests sank, and new lakes formed as the Earth violently rearranged its mantle.

The quakes -- registering 7.8 to 8.3 on the Richter scale -- shook scaffolding at the U.S. Capitol and rang church bells in Boston. The same earthquakes today, according to seismologists, would cause at least $50 billion in damage and would put millions of bTC people in Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Indiana at risk. Seismologists have warned for the past decade that there is a 50 percent chance of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake's occurring on the New Madrid fault by the end of the century.

Dr. Iben Browning -- the 72-year-old climatologist and consultant from Sandia Park, N.M., who accurately forecast last year's devastating earthquake in San Francisco and the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 -- believes that the alignment of the sun, Earth and moon will produce an unusually strong gravitational pull on the Earth's crust Dec. 3, likely unleashing a powerful temblor on the 120-mile seismic zone that stretches from Marked Tree, Ark., to Cairo, Ill.

The National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, reporting Oct. 18 to the U.S. Geological Survey, discounted Dr. Browning's prediction, calling it unscientific and even dangerous. However, the council's scholarly pronouncement appears to have done little to relieve apprehensions.

A 4.6 earthquake Sept. 26, centered 40 miles north of New Madrid, shook parts of five Midwestern states and unnerved a public already squeamish about "entire forests falling prostrate," waters gathered like a mountain" and "a noise more tremendous and terrific than I can describe" -- as eyewitnesses described the quakes nearly two centuries ago.

"I don't care what people come out and say. It's got people more worried than they've ever been. Off my hairdresser, I hear a lot of people are leaving town," said Virginia Carlson, director of the New Madrid Historical Museum. "I can't hardly visualize what it'll be like as the time draws closer. It's like sitting on a time bomb."

"After that town meeting, you couldn't buy a trash barrel, a flashlight or a cook stove around here," Mrs. Carlson said. "There was nothing to be bought at the Wal-Mart. Some people come in here and get real hysterical and quivering. They think the Earth is going to crack up and swallow them. It has certainly gotten everyone's attention."

At least nine school districts in the fault zone are releasing tens of thousands of students from classes Dec. 3-4; Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., is taking no chances. The 980 students there will be on quake break Nov. 29 through Dec. 10.

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