The St. Louis Earthquake of 1990
The New Madrid Fault
Let me explain. Unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, St. Louis lies near a fault zone, the New Madrid Fault. While nowhere near as famous as the San Andreas, the New Madrid Fault has caused done major devastation in the past. Throughout 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes estimated as 7 to 8 on the Richter Scale hit the then-remote outpost of St. Louis. These earthquakes were so powerful that they changed the course of the Mississippi River and were felt as far away as Washington, DC.
So the possibility of a devastating St. Louis earthquake is a real one. So in 1990, a man named Iben Browning stepped in. He was a climatologist who specialized in studying tidal patterns. He was not a seismologist, and his climatology work was not well respected by the scientific community at large. But when he predicted that “the Big One” was coming, people ate it up. Browning predicted an earthquake centered on New Madrid would occur on December 3, 1990. He had previously (and dubiously) predicted the Loma Prieta earthquake and the eruption of Mount St. Helens. So when he said there was a 50-50 chance of a massive St. Louis earthquake, people took notice and panicked appropriately.
A Minor Tremor
I was living at the time off a levee road in East Carondelet, Illinois. Though I was only ten, I spent a lot of time watching the news with my dad. The December 3 Earthquake was all the local media could talk about. It didn’t help that there was a smaller earthquake, a 4 on the Richter scale, that occurred in September. I was riding the school bus along the bumpy levee road when it happened, but some my classmates claimed to have felt it. Because of Browning’s prediction, it was a bigger deal than it needed to be. In fact, one of the local TV stations sent a news crew to my school to get some reactions from local kids. They didn’t interview me, but I was briefly on camera, which entertained me to no end. As for the predicted earthquake though, I had no strong opinion.
December 3, 1990
When December 3 rolled around, I wanted to stay home from school, but my parents insisted that I go since they thought Browning was a crackpot. So I went to school. There were only two or three other kids in my class that day, so we didn’t get any work done. Instead we just stayed in and played games. It was an awesome day at school, more fun than staying home, in fact. Obviously, the Great Earthquake of 1990 didn’t happen, though the incident has stuck in my mind ever since. It was the first time that I realized the guys on TV could be wrong, that the media could sometimes (if not often) make a big deal out of nothing. It was a good life lesson, and something cool I’ll never forget.
If you lived in St. Louis in 1990, do you remember the great earthquake that never was? If you do, let me know in the comments.