New Madrid finds no fault with earthquake publicity dTC

December 05, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW MADRID, Mo. -- It wasn't earthquakes townsfolk in New Madrid were talking about yesterday, but floods.

Media-weary residents of this Mississippi River town joked about the flood that would come when they all dumped the water they'd stored for the Quake That Wasn't. (Everyone here thought that was funny.)

Life in New Madrid returned to its sleepy, small-town pace yesterday as the final 24 hours of a prediction that a major earthquake would strike the New Madrid fault passed without incident.

The prediction by New Mexico climatologist Iben Browning threw a scare into Midwesterners, and brought dozens of news reporters and TV crews to this community of 3,335 on Monday. Most had cleared out by yesterday morning.

"Life goes on in our little town," said Mayor Dick Phillips, an ever-present cigar enshrouding him in smoke. "We have the Ducks Unlimited banquet coming up Friday -- that's something to look forward to. And on Saturday, of course, there's a retirement party for the county prosecutor. Should be quite a wingding."

Mr. Phillips refused to let the quake scare interrupt city business. On Monday night, as TV news cameras trained their sights on him, he called a city council meeting at which officials rescheduled their next session so that they wouldn't miss the annual Christmas party at Sharp's restaurant.

Folks are already planning one-year anniversary parties to "The Earthquake," an event even the mayor says was unparalleled in New Madrid history.

If nothing else, the deluge of attention helped some businesses. At the town's only motel, the Cabana -- a series of orange-tinted mobile trailers laid end to end -- journalists booked all 47 rooms for two nights in a row. Only a few cars lingered in the motel lot yesterday.

The attention has also caused people to focus on the inevitable: A major earthquake will strike the New Madrid fault some day, as a series of devastating temblors did nearly two centuries ago.

Since the prediction -- ridiculed by most scientists -- was publicized, Missouri has passed laws toughening its building codes and requiring schools to hold earthquake drills.

Also, individuals are better prepared -- some more than others.

Emma Lou Warf, a New Madrid secretary, prepared an emergency kit for her home and car. She also took family pictures off the walls and wrapped her china in newspapers. She packed the gifts she bought for Christmas in her trunk. "I thought if something happened to the house, at least my Christmas shopping would still be OK," she said.

Amazed at attention the Browning prediction poured on their hometown, Cary Phillips and Chuck Blue penned a song, called "Thank You Mr. Browning," to commemorate New Madrid's stint in the spotlight:

"Thank you Mr. Browning for putting us on the map. Now the whole world knows exactly where the city of New Madrid's at.

"We love all the attention and the free publicity because it's not everyday we get the chance to be celebrities. . . . But the big news is that there's no news. It's not an earthquake -- just a fault."

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