Dec. 3, 1990: The day Iben Browning predicted the big one would rock our world
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Dec. 3, 1990: The day Iben Browning predicted the big one would rock our world

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Do you still have stuff in your Browning bunker -- or a shelf, closet or garbage can filled with survival goodies?

Such measures were prompted by the late Iben Browning, a climatologist and consultant, who predicted 29 years ago that our earthquake alley -- the hatchet-shaped, midcontinent New Madrid seismic fault zone -- had a 50-50 chance for a big one, a megaquake maybe on the order of the horrific seismic jolts that dismantled the area in 1811-12.

The earthquakes were so bad that they caused the Mississippi River to flow backward, created Reelfoot Lake, and for a short time, a waterfall on the river, and a number of large, volcano-shaped sand blows. They rang church bells in Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia and could be felt as far away as Canada.

Browning's prediction -- he set the time around Dec. 3, 1990 -- set off emotional and psychological quaking throughout the Mississippi Valley and beyond. All over the St. Louis area, people began supplying their Browning bunkers with bottled water, medicine, canned foods, soup packets, first-aid kits, phone books, financial records and so on.

Look Back 1215

A map and graphic published in 1989 estimating the extent of damage that would be caused by a strong earthquake along the New Madrid fault. Scientists estimate that the 1811-12 earthquakes may have been the nation's worst, and were stronger than the deadly San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (Post-Dispatch)

Many out-of-state relatives urged family members in the St. Louis area to leave town, or move away for good. 

Browning based his forecast on weather patterns and conditions, and a good many people believed him -- even though this was the same fellow who studied the feasibility of arming whales with hydrogen bombs and turning them into weapons. Browning died in July 1991, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Earlier that same year, he won the first Chicken Little Award of the National Anxiety Center, for scaring "the daylights out of people in seven Midwestern states," providing "one of the most dubious news stories of the year and demonstrating the way anyone with a Ph.D. is given free reign to create a high level of public anxiety.

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