On the morning of December 3rd, 1990, millions of Americans woke up believing that an earthquake was going to flatten the Midwest. Earlier that year, famed climatologist and earthquake prophet Dr. Iben Browning predicted that a devastating quake would strike the New Madrid Fault in southeast Missouri on that day. This disaster would devastate seven states, kill thousands, and affect tens of millions of people. Later, when a reputable seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University endorsed Browning’s claims, people throughout the region – and the national news media – began to take notice. The hysteria that followed during the fall of 1990 created the largest media non-event since Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds Broadcast in 1938, and Browning’s prediction would lead to the world’s largest earthquake . . . that never happened.
Though many scientists sneered at Browning’s prediction, his track record suggests that he be taken seriously. Browning claimed to have predicted the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco the previous year – many Midwesterners recall seeing that quake play out on live TV while watching the World Series – and he allegedly predicted the explosion at Mt. St. Helens as well. Browning also had friends in high places, and his prediction business, Browning Media, counted among its clients some Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, and government agencies. Browning’s many and diverse scientific activities, inventions, and research projects made him seem like a modern-day Leonardo Di Vinci or Nikola Tesla. Our interview with his grandson, James Garriss III, and the documents he provided from his grandfather’s archives reveal the extent of his influence and the originality of his thinking.
Browning’s prediction and the Loma Prieta quake were not the only factors to contribute to the wave of public hysteria that broke out across the lower Midwest in 1990. The New Madrid Fault has also produced some of the largest-known earthquakes to have ever hit the United States. Four quakes in particular struck within months of each other in 1811-1812. As every Missouri schoolkid knows, the quakes reversed the flow of the Mississippi River for a few hours. One of the tremors actually created a new body of water, Reelfoot Lake, which is located in southwestern Kentucky. Our interview with history professor Stephen Aron at UCLA covers this devastating earthquake sequence, and Aron postulates that many people in Missouri at the time believed it was the end of the world. Ever since then people across the Mississippi Valley have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Later on, in 1990, the Loma Prieta quake was firmly in the rear-view mirror for many Missourians, but Americans in general also worried about the future as the United States sent half a million soldiers to the Persian Gulf to face Saddam Hussein. The traumas of the Vietnam War and the casualty projections showing that thousands of Americans would die in Operation Desert Storm set nerves on edge across the country. For some, the earthquake prediction was a silly diversion. For others, it was further proof that many untold dangers lurked ahead.
Few in the media took Browning’s prediction until Dr. David Stewart, the head of Southeast Missouri State University’s seismology program, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the threat “should be taken seriously.” Stewart was also a quirky scientific figure. Although Stewart was a trained seismologist (unlike Browning), he publicly stated that he believed in “psychic phenomena.” Although we were not able to get an interview with Stewart due to his declining health, we do have hours of video showing Stewart discussing the prediction, including earthquake safety videos he produced for Southeast Missouri State University during the early 1990s. In any case, Stewart’s endorsement amplified media interest in the story and, in many quarters, legitimized it.
Over the next several months, media organizations, officials, and members of the general public responded to the prediction with a mix of incredulity and caution. St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl ignored the hullabaloo, while Senator John Ashcroft planned a visit to Southeast Missouri to coincide with the predicted quake dates. Several local and state agencies, including Missouri’s FEMA counterpart, planned drills in anticipation of the event. Multiple school districts closed down for December 3rd, and St. Charles County schools reported that student absences doubled that day. Some businesses closed down, and one survey conducted by Dr. John Farley at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (whom we also interviewed) suggested that as much as 3% of the population left town to escape the pending disaster – a whopping number in a region with millions of people.
As hysteria over the event rippled throughout the region, scientists and some media outlets moved to quell the public’s concerns. Numerous seismologists, including Dr. Seth Stein (whom we are interviewing in April 2019), went on the record to deny the prediction’s validity. Some called Browning a quack, and many leveled withering criticism at Stewart for echoing the prediction. In the media, while some television networks and anchors (like CNN and Bill Kurtis, respectively) uncritically echoed the prediction, other journalists like KSDK’s chief meteorologist Bob Richards in St. Louis vehemently denounced the non-event and asked his viewers to trust the overwhelming majority of scientists who paid no heed to Browning’s musings. But as the date drew closer, media curiosity continued to grow.
On December 2nd, 1990, a bizarre spectacle appeared: thousands of journalists descended on the tiny Mississippi River town of New Madrid, Missouri. Some estimated the flood of journalists, cameramen, and producers actually outnumbered the total population of the town. This film will employ footage from the scene to tell the story, as well as interviews of local residents who remember that day. As one CNN report from the scene put it, “reporters are interviewing other reporters, and cameramen are filming each other.” Local residents sold tshirts and refreshments to the out of town crews, which provided the single largest tourism boost in the city’s history. Famed alt-country band Uncle Tupelo even wrote a song about the event, “New Madrid,” about a local resident who falls in love with a reporter on the scene.
Of course, the earthquake never happened. The news vans departed New Madrid early on the 4th, and the Midwest woke up scratching its head over the events of the previous few months. The fallout in some quarters was swift: within a week, Southeast Missouri State University fired David Stewart from his post, and Browning’s business began hemorrhaging credibility. He died the following summer. But the media world had little appetite for soul-searching. With a war on the horizon, journalists moved on to the next headlines. But even though no one died in either the non-quake or the hysteria surrounding it, the media failed to learn any lessons from the event. Nearly thirty years later, journalists still have difficulty reconciling the “if it bleeds it leads” impulse with the greater public good in an increasingly saturated media landscape. Our interviews with Aron, Farley, Garriss, and USGS seismologist Susan Hough explore the lessons we’ve learned from the non-event as well as those we haven’t.
Earthshaking is currently under production by Ocean View Productions in association with 7 South Productions. It is being developed as a standalone one-hour documentary project for television broadcast.