All the shakin' goin' on in New Madrid is media

December 04, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW MADRID, MO — NEW MADRID, Mo. -- The only thing that shook in earthquake-ready New Madrid yesterday was the ground every time a big TV truck drove by.

Reports of New Madrid's likely demise, it would seem, were greatly exaggerated.

Yesterday was E-Day -- the day New Mexico climatologist Iben Browning had predicted that there was a 50-50 chance a major earthquake would strike the New Madrid fault, which snakes from Arkansas through southeastern Missouri into southern Illinois.

Even Gov. John Ashcroft and U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Bond came to this sleepy Mississippi River town yesterday to reassure folks that, as Mr. Bond put it: "New Madrid is here today and it will be here tomorrow."

New Madrid, population 3,335, has been in a tailspin ever since the controversial prediction -- which extends through today -- was reported last summer.

In just the past week, there have been wild rumors of blackbirds flying backward, fish shooting up out of the river, angels stopping traffic, horses committing suicide and Dan Rather booking a room at the Cabana Motel -- all supposed precursors of The Big One.

Schools across the central United States canceled classes yesterday and today for tens of thousands of students, and some businesses closed shop. Many families have hoarded supplies in case a quake hits, and a few have left the area for more benign climes for a few days.

Here in New Madrid, Mayor Dick Phillips directed the town's two fire pumpers, a bulldozer, a backhoe and a road grader to park in an empty lot or in a metal building "so that we can get right to 'em if we need to."

At the New Madrid Nursing Center -- designated as a "casualty collection point" -- the elderly and infirm, fresh from an earthquake drill, ate hot dogs and chips for lunch. "We wanted to do something festive for them," explained the administrator, Dianne Walker. "They like hot dogs."

Dozens and dozens of reporters and news crews showed up from across the country, many of them falling over each other as they interviewed residents from the early dawn hours into the night. Seismologist Douglas Wiens, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, suggested that someone organize a journalists' convention.

Seismologists have discounted Mr. Browning's prediction. No unusual activity was recorded yesterday along the 120-mile fault line, which experienced a series of devastating quakes in 1811-12.

Rural New Madrid, which lies at the northern tip of the Cotton Belt 125 miles north of Memphis, is so small that 11-year-old Allison Nowell, a sixth-grader, was absolutely beside herself yesterday because there were traffic jams -- primarily caused by news vehicles -- on all three blocks of downtown.

"Oh, please interview me," she begged a reporter. "Nothing ever happens here. This is just too exciting."

Hap's Bar & Grill hosted a Quake, Rattle, & Roll Party all day long yesterday, and Rosie's Lounge was offering a drink called the Earthquake, a concoction of orange juice, Grenadine and half-shots of gin, rum and vodka.

Sanford Berry kept circling downtown in his 1967 van, announcing: "Earthquake or Rapture? Jesus is coming again soon. Are you ready?"

And Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth, here to observe reaction to the prediction, noted, "I've got to get back to L.A. where it's normal."

At the state Family Services Agency, social services supervisor Linda Fowler said she had to get court approval for three families to take their foster children out of state as a result of the scare. One-third of Family Services staff took yesterday off.

"The good part is that people are more prepared for an earthquake," she said. "The bad part is that there are a lot of frightened folks out there."

Maintenance worker Phil Swiney, 33, had the day off. His employer, Gold Bond Ice Cream, declared it a holiday because of "the women hand-packers -- they were concerned."

Mr. Swiney said the Browning prediction prompted his family to prepare disaster kits for their home and car.

"The kids is the ones made us do it, actually," he said. "The schools just about scared 'em to death. The girl, 9, came home overly concerned and for awhile she wouldn't sleep alone in her bed.

"But it's like a new toy," he said. "Once the newness gets worn off, they don't bother with it anymore."

Retired cotton and bean farmer Henry Fowler has stocked two big barrels with food and water. He has strapped down his water heater and stuffed his trunk with clothes, blankets and a 2-gallon jug of water. He was at Ramey's Supermarket at 8 a.m. to purchase kerosene, the last item on his earthquake-kit list.

"I think it's all a bunch of hooey," he said. "Don't you?"

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