The third day of December 1990 was a Monday, but schools in the small southeast Missouri town of New Madrid were closed.
In fact, some 40,000 students in portions of Missouri and surrounding states — Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana — had the day off, and some districts had canceled Tuesday and Wednesday as well. The reasons given by school officials varied. Some said the cancellations were made out of an abundance of caution, or in response to community pressure. Others said that even if schools had remained open, many kids would have been absent anyway, because their parents wanted to keep them at home, or had decided to leave the area. The closings had been announced weeks, in some cases even months, beforehand.
“People all over town were packing up their china and they were screwing things to the wall,” recalls New Madrid resident Sandy Hill. National Guard units in Missouri and Arkansas had spent the prior weekend conducting preparedness drills. Emergency management offices had been swamped with thousands of calls.
In downtown New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), however, there was plenty of activity along Main Street. The typically sleepy town of about 3,000 was suddenly packed with personnel from more than 200 news organizations from around the world, along with at least 30 satellite trucks. Then there were the street preachers pronouncing it the end of the world and the thrill-seekers who wanted to be able to say they’d been there, in that town on that date. For some, it was a good excuse to celebrate. The local museum sold commemorative T-shirts, and restaurants added specials to the menu. One downtown bar held a daylong party.
The reason for the contradictory scene was this: New Madrid is the namesake of a seismic zone spanning several states in the lower Midwest and South that was the site of some of the largest earthquakes in recorded North American history. And about a year earlier, a self-styled climatologist named Iben Browning had predicted a 50% chance of another one on Monday, Dec. 3, 1990, give or take a couple days.
If it happened, Browning said, bridges across the Mississippi River would collapse. A third of the buildings in Chicago would be damaged. While he never personally projected the human toll of his predicted quake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that it could leave 200,000 people across the region homeless and cause $2 billion in damage. In St. Louis, a local emergency management official warned, “A great Missouri earthquake will affect 21 states and some 15 million people.”
But New Madrid — and the rest of the world — stood still that day. In a 1990 interview with United Press International, a Northwestern University geologist dubbed Dec. 3 “the greatest non-event since The War of the Worlds,” a reference to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast about a fictional alien invasion that is thought to have prompted panic among confused listeners in 1938.
Browning’s prediction brought awareness to a seismic zone much less well-known than counterparts in the western United States. But it did so by creating what a U.S. Geological Survey report would later call “serious levels” of public agitation, and by spreading unrealistic expectations about the extent to which we can predict earthquakes. The episode raised critical questions regarding the response of the scientific community and the media. Browning died not long after his prediction, and now, 25 years later, his name has fallen out of the public consciousness. His primary supporter in the scientific community made a career change after a spiritual vision. Still, significant risk remains for another major earthquake in the New Madrid zone. Just don't ask for the date.
Americans are all too familiar with the earthquake risks faced by California, and an inspection of the USGS seismic hazard map for the Lower 48 shows the West Coast is indeed home to most of the pink and red coding that designates the areas most prone to quakes. But a spot in the heart of the United States burns just as bright. That’s the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
In its entirety, the NMSZ is made up of several fault lines that stretch about 165 miles from the town of Marked Tree in northeast Arkansas through portions of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky to Cairo, the southernmost city in Illinois. It is the most seismically active area in the country east of the Rocky Mountains. While the public generally associates earthquakes with the shifting that occurs at the edges of tectonic plates, the New Madrid zone isn’t anywhere near such a boundary. Its existence is believed to be the result of a rift that developed hundreds of millions of years ago during the breakup of a supercontinent. That rift failed to rupture the upper portion of the earth’s crust, essentially creating an underground weak spot. About 200 quakes occur in the zone each year, although only a handful are strong enough to be felt.
During the winter of 1811-12, a series of quakes — itself an unusual phenomenon — hit the region. It was less than a decade after the Louisiana Purchase, and the town of New Madrid was the largest of the few European settlements in the area, so the seismic zone was named after it. Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River, New Madrid is the seat of a county dominated by soybean and cotton fields. While the quakes in the early 19th century long preceded modern measurement techniques, seismologists now estimate the first one, on Dec. 16, 1811, and subsequent ones on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7, 1812 — which are not considered aftershocks — fell somewhere in the magnitude 7 to 8 range on the Richter scale. Within the contiguous 48 states, only four earthquakes — the most recent the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, magnitude 7.8 — have been recorded or estimated to be larger.
Earthquakes in the central and eastern United States naturally affect a wider area than similarly sized ones that occur out West, because of differences in the geologic makeup of the crust. The area of strong shaking associated with the 1811-12 quakes was thus 10 times larger than that of the 1906 San Francisco quake. According to written accounts from the time, chimneys came down in Cincinnati, church bells rang in Boston. The most enduring belief is that the Mississippi River briefly ran backward when portions of the riverbed were raised during the shaking.
Because the New Madrid region was sparsely populated by settlers 200 years ago, the 19th-century quakes aren’t remembered for death and destruction. By 1990, however, millions of people resided in the area considered at risk, which includes the cities of Memphis and St. Louis. Yet despite the area’s history, people in the region were “relatively uneducated about the risks of an earthquake, and how to manage that risk,” says William Allen, who was a science reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time. That gap in knowledge left an opening for Iben Browning.
Iben Browning was born in Edna, Texas, in 1918. A World War II veteran with a doctorate in zoology and minors in genetics and bacteriology from the University of Texas, he led a professional career that defies easy characterization. In the 1960s, Browning worked as a weapons systems analyst for Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he ultimately settled, and he served as a consultant to NASA in the run-up to the 1969 moon landing.
Beginning in the ’70s, Browning co-authored several books spanning such disparate subjects as robotics, the economics of AIDS, and climatology, and he eventually shifted his focus to the latter. Browning occupied a different world than the traditional scientific community: one where his observations could be put out unfettered, without the rigor of analysis by the scientific method. In one 1989 talk, he called the greenhouse effect “hogwash” and said that the earth was getting cooler and that glaciers were growing. For most of his career, his often far-fetched statements were relatively unknown to the media or general public.
However, Browning developed a following among businesspeople involved in industries like banking, brokerage, and farming equipment — people who had a stake in agricultural futures and focused more on results, rather than sound science, as the driving factor in their decision-making. In advertisements and public statements, Browning claimed to have successfully predicted, among other things, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington and the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco, and some of his clients backed him up. He traveled the country to give lectures, worked as a consultant, and sold subscriptions to The Browning Newsletter, which featured his climate forecasts.
Browning highlighted Dec. 3, 1990, as a day of “increased geological activity” as early as 1985, although he didn’t say precisely where. By 1989, however, he began speaking on the lecture circuit about the risk of an earthquake on that date in the New Madrid zone specifically. The first in-depth press coverage of the prediction appears to have been published in late November of that year in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “Mark the date on your calendar, but don’t panic,” it began, describing Browning as “a scientist who correctly predicted October’s San Francisco earthquake.” Browning believed tidal forces impacted earthquake frequency, the article explained, and he expected unusually strong forces on Dec. 3. Those forces didn’t entirely guarantee a quake, but they would act as a “trigger,” with a large quake possible if the seismic zone was “loaded,” Browning said.
Given that many natural disasters now come with some type of advance warning, it makes sense that the general public might expect the same for earthquakes. However, despite decades of attempting to come up with precise predictions, most mainstream geologists still hold that they don’t have a strong enough understanding of the conditions deep underground, and how they factor into the sudden release of energy, to specifically say when a quake will occur. Rather, the best they can do is produce earthquake hazard forecasts, which use information from past activity to estimate the probability that a quake of a certain strength will happen in a particular region in the near future — typically within a window of at least several decades.
After initially being publicized in late 1989, Browning’s New Madrid prediction gradually became more detailed, as he continued to give talks and lectures. The USGS would ultimately summarize it as follows:
A 50% probability of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake in the New Madrid region on December 2-3, [1990,] plus or minus two days (December 1-5).
A greater than 50% probability of a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in Tokyo, Japan, during that same period, and a slightly less than 50% chance of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 quake on California’s Hayward fault.
87% probability that at least one of the three would occur.
Virtual certainty that a major quake would occur in the northern 30 to 60 degree band of latitude on that date.
However, according to news reports from the time, Browning never intended for the prediction to be publicized beyond his appearances in the business community, and he said that it had been “leaked.” “I did not release the information to the public,” he insisted in a speech at an agriculture conference in Missouri. “Panic can kill more people than an earthquake.”
The portion of Browning’s prediction that dealt with California and Japan never really attracted much attention. Japan was far removed from the American news cycle, and California was already knowledgeable about earthquake hazards. But the New Madrid zone was a fairly recent focus for scientists. While the 1811—12 quakes were known, it wasn’t until the mid- to late 1970s that scientists began realizing that the seismic zone was still capable of producing quakes on that scale. “We heard from the scientific community that we had something to be concerned about here,” recalls Jim Wilkinson, the executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
Though media mentions of Browning remained minimal for the first part of 1990, some had already begun to heed his warnings. In March, city department heads in Carbondale, Illinois, were told not to plan any vacations around Dec. 3 and, by May, CUSEC felt the prediction was getting enough traction that it asked a USGS evaluation council to formally rule on it, figuring that would put the matter to rest entirely. But the council, perhaps afraid that would signal the prediction was being taken seriously, declined to do so, just as it had declined to evaluate most of the 300 earthquake predictions it had received since 1977.
Allen recalls that his editors at the Post-Dispatch decided he needed to begin covering the prediction in June after a national outlet ran a story concerning it. While he had reported a series for the paper in 1989 about the region’s lack of earthquake preparedness, Allen was nevertheless skeptical. The prediction just didn’t entirely make sense, and a trip to visit Browning in New Mexico later that year didn’t help. “I was unable to get a straight or coherent answer from him that would explain even a general concept of how his modeling worked and how he came up with his forecast,” Allen remembers.
Allen’s first piece on the prediction ran June 22. A couple weeks later, he wrote another, focusing on the objections of many seismologists. Then he saw a memo written by a scientist named David Stewart.
Stewart, a well-known voice in the regional seismological community, was the director of the Center for Earthquake Studies at Southeast Missouri State University and had previously served as head of CUSEC. Allen had even accompanied Stewart out in the field while reporting the 1989 preparedness series.
In the June 1990 memo to colleagues in the seismology and emergency management fields, Stewart called Browning “perhaps, the most intelligent person I have ever met.” He acknowledged that he couldn’t look at the data Browning cited and come up with the same conclusions, and that Browning was not “formally trained in the fields that would traditionally deal with volcanoes and earthquakes.” But Stewart advocated that Browning’s reputation in the business world for successful predictions was enough to take him seriously.
Stewart, the USGS later concluded, acted as the “independent supporting source” for Browning’s views in the media. Allen’s story on the memo, headlined “Quake Prediction Taken Seriously,” ran on July 21. The first school cancellations for Dec. 3 were made over the summer.
Stewart would go on to be quoted in the press more than Browning himself, although that was partially due to the fact that Browning was ill. Speaking of Browning to the Dallas Morning News in July 1990, Stewart said: “Here’s a man who verifiably has hit several home runs, and he’s up to bat … you can’t ignore the batting record.” In August, he told the New York Times: “Will he hit another on December 3? We don’t know, but that’s no excuse for not being prepared.”
Any given day carries a tiny chance of a major earthquake in the New Madrid zone. But for individuals who spend months or years in the region, the potential to personally experience one gradually adds up. For those in the emergency management community, Browning’s prediction posed a conundrum. For much of the 1980s, they had been trying to make people aware of the seismic zone and encouraging them to prepare. And since the Loma Prieta earthquake had killed 63 people and caused billions in damages in the Bay Area just months before, many felt that now, more than ever, was the time for those living in the New Madrid to begin considering the risks in their own region seriously. It raised the question: Should they refute the likely false prediction — and thus risk compromising their general pleas for preparedness — or go along with it to further their cause?
In early August, the spokesperson for the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management in Missouri, citing claims of Browning’s successful predictions, said: “He’s been correct on so many things. I think that everybody ought to take him seriously.” The next month, the director of public safety in Sikeston, Missouri, told Allen: “Even if he isn’t correct, he’s doing a great service for emergency preparedness, because people are finally listening.”
On Sept. 26, 1990, there was an earthquake in the New Madrid region.
It wasn’t a large one — magnitude 4.7, on the same scale as about 20 quakes in the region since the beginning of the 20th century. No injuries were reported, and damage was limited to some broken dishes, but it nevertheless served as a reminder of the geological forces lurking beneath the region. By the end of the month, advertisements began appearing in regional newspapers peddling a video Browning had recorded in February on the Dec. 3 prediction. Tapes were $99, or $39 for a 30-minute excerpt. “If you live anywhere near the New Madrid fault, you should seriously consider ordering a copy,” the ads read. According to a Post-Dispatch article, Browning was “seriously ill” and expected to die shortly after the video was recorded, and thus worked with a company out of Palm Springs, California, to shoot it for posterity’s sake. He said it was the company, not he, who’d placed the ads, as he had expected it to be sold to business leaders. His share of the profits were to go to a trust fund set up for two of his grandchildren, who were disabled. "I am completely divided, in my mind, about the virtues of the advertisement,” he said.
As the prediction began to take on a life beyond what even Browning expected, experts continued to doggedly refute it. “The probability of a significant quake occurring on Dec. 3 is not greater than any other day,” the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said in September. “The near-hysteria that has developed over [Browning’s] groundless prediction is startling to those of us who study earthquakes … No one can make such predictions,” added a Washington University professor. A USGS spokesperson said he’d be glad to have a drink with a reporter atop the tallest hotel in St. Louis on Dec. 3.
In late September, the USGS evaluation council, realizing that ignoring Browning’s prediction hadn’t worked, agreed to formally assess it, and a report was hurriedly prepared in two weeks. Released in mid-October, it concluded there was no scientific validity to Browning’s prediction. The report also knocked down Browning’s claims of successful previous predictions — a major factor in capturing the attention of the public and the media.
In the case of the Prieta quake, the council found, an audience member’s recording of Browning’s talk 10 days earlier showed he said “there will probably be several earthquakes around the world, Richter 6 plus, and there may be a volcano or two” around Oct. 16, 1989. But he hadn’t specified that an earthquake would occur in California.
And regarding the 1980 Mount St. Helens prediction, the council found that six days before the eruption, Browning had said the incident would occur within a week. But the group called that “less prescient than that might seem”; the volcano had been having minor quakes for months, and geologists had been publicly warning that an eruption was imminent.
“Our panel found that Iben Browning’s record for predicting earthquakes is about as good as that of someone throwing darts at a calendar,” one USGS official said upon the report’s release.
Stewart, contacted by the press after the report’s release, could have deferred to its conclusions. Instead, he released a statement saying Browning’s prediction “has been neither verified nor disproven by the scientific method at this time.”
Allen had been doing his own digging. In late October, after looking into a tip, he published a piece in the Post-Dispatch noting that in 1975, while working at the University of North Carolina, Stewart had invited a California psychic who claimed to have successfully predicted an earthquake to speak on campus. While there, she took interest in research Stewart was doing off the North Carolina coast. They flew over the area, and a day or so later, the psychic publicly stated an earthquake was imminent. “The psychic and the intuitive approach to scientific endeavor is both valid and valuable,” Stewart later said at a faculty meeting, in support of her claims. He was subsequently denied tenure at the school, and eventually moved to the post in Missouri.
Allen says that he thought the psychic story would destroy any credibility Stewart and the quake prediction had with the public. But by then the public response had ballooned beyond any single entity’s control. According to media coverage at the time, a St. Louis area Red Cross chapter had nearly exhausted its stash of 230,000 earthquake preparedness guides by mid-November. USGS’s National Earthquake Information Service in Colorado averaged about 100 calls a day related to the prediction. Wal-Mart placed blankets, bottled water, and first-aid kits at prominent spots within its stores in the area.
At least a few people planned to leave the region for good. “My wife and I were sitting around one night and it hit me like that: We’ve got to find someplace new and get out of here,” said a Marked Tree, Arkansas, resident who, according to an interview with the Chicago Tribune, had sold his house and bought a new one 175 miles to the west.
The chairman of CUSEC asked NBC to delay the airing of a November earthquake-related disaster miniseries, worried it would add to the fear in the region. The network declined. The editor of the newspaper in Paducah, Kentucky, believing coverage of Browning’s prediction had gone too far, banned further reporting on it by his staff. But decisions like those were just drops in the bucket. Browning appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and prompted segments on the Today show, ABC’s World News Tonight, and PBS’s Nova. The prediction had been covered in every major national newspaper in the country, including no fewer than 10 times in USA Today. One of the stories described New Madrid second-graders going to the principal’s office in tears and telling the reporter, “I don’t want be dead.” Most of the school closings across the region were announced in October and November, and some schools in states as far as Michigan and Nebraska followed suit. “If a person has any doubt about whether I’m wrong or not, he should at least take care of his children,” Browning said while addressing a real estate association in St. Louis in mid-November.
The weekend before Dec. 3, the Arkansas National Guard held its earthquake-preparedness drill out of a base in Marked Tree, imagining the worst-case scenario: a magnitude 7.6 quake. The projected toll across 17 Arkansas counties was nearly 5,000 dead and nearly 100,000 homeless. By Sunday, Dec. 2, holiday events across the region, including New Madrid’s annual Christmas parade, had been canceled. Don Lloyd, then the city administrator for New Madrid, personally knew about five families that had left the town for at least a few days. “I just think they felt it would be better to be safe than sorry,” he says.
The president of a local bank had given his employees their bonuses 10 days early so they could prepare for the quake. The empty field across from the town’s historical museum was flooded with satellite vans and reporters from as far as the U.K. and Japan, for whom one harried Southwestern Bell employee had toiled to set up 40 extra phone lines. Main Street was jammed with everyone from musicians (“The Faultline Express Band”) to T-shirt merchants (“The Great New Madrid Earthquake”) to ministers (“EARTHQUAKE! or RAPTURE!”). “It was a shock for a little town like ours,” says New Madrid City Clerk Karen Chapman, who remembers her mother being contacted by distant relatives in California after they saw her being interviewed on TV.
According to one USA Today article, New Madrid’s then-mayor, Dick Phillips, had been receiving frantic calls from residents, some of whom claimed to have seen signs that the earthquake was imminent. The strangest? That the blackbirds were flying backward. He’d remained measured and calm in interviews and had refused to cancel the city council meeting scheduled for the next night. Now, he considered the chaos before him.
“Lord help us,” he said.
Allen arrived warily alongside the 200 estimated news agencies in New Madrid. For him, being there wasn’t about seeing what happened if an earthquake actually occurred, he says, but about covering the reaction of the locals when one didn’t.
“Nothing since has brought everyone to New Madrid like that did,” says Municipal Court Clerk Martha Henderson. Hap’s, the now-defunct bar across from New Madrid City Hall, kicked off its “Shake, Rattle and Roll” party at 6 a.m. so a radio station could broadcast live, and the festivities lasted all day. Down the street, meanwhile, Tom’s Grill served up Shake ’n Bake chicken and “quakeburgers.” The only difference was that the top bun and patty were jaggedly torn, but it was novel enough to sell. The locals that hadn’t left, in other words, were mostly catering to the out-of-town clientele.
“I’m more afraid of being run over by one of these TV trucks that are running all over the place than of any earthquake,” Hap’s owner Jack Hailey told the New York Times.
California psychologist Robert Butterworth arrived in town with an Iben Browning puppet and urged kids to kick him to release their anxieties and anger. The Faultline Express Band played quake-related songs by the levee. Even the governor made an appearance, in an attempt to reassure locals, the more colorful of whom lingered downtown.
“You know how every community has some folks that love telling stories, whether true or not?” says Jan Farrenburg, the administrator of the town’s website. “They were the ones that talked to the reporters.”
The reaction of the locals didn’t always make sense. Sandy Hill’s husband was the principal of the local high school in 1990, and he had made the call to close for the day. But she recalls that a long-planned school volleyball game was still held, although game time was moved up because the opposing team wanted to be gone by nightfall — as if quakes don’t occur during the day. And some residents who left town only went so far as Cape Girardeau, a city less than an hour north that would undoubtedly see damage from a large quake.
In the stories Allen filed from the period, he interviewed an anxious resident who decided to leave New Madrid to visit her daughter in Springfield, Illinois, and noted the “Aftershock” drink special added to the menu at Rosie’s restaurant. But 25 years later, what he mostly remembers is taking an hour by himself one evening to stand in the dark at an overlook along the Mississippi, wondering how things had escalated to the point they did. Then he made his way back to sleep in the only motel in town, which was booked solid. There were so many visitors, and so little in the way of local accommodations, that Farrenburg hosted a reporter from Chicago for three nights in her home.
Tabitha Grimsley was one of the worried second-graders quoted in the November 1990 USA Today story. “I don’t like being scared,” she said. “I don’t want to die.” The article indicated her family was leaving New Madrid during the period of the prediction. But Grimsley says her family ultimately stayed in town, after her parents realized how far they’d need to travel to escape the seismic zone. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we couldn’t go that far,” she says. Grimsley doesn’t remember her reaction when a quake never came. “But I remember my dad saying, ‘Only God knows when earthquakes are going to happen.’”
Although Browning’s prediction technically lasted until Wednesday the 5th, most reporters left town when Monday came and went. “It remained a topic of conversation,” Lloyd recalls. “Everybody exchanged stories of who they had talked to for a week or two. But everything got back to normal pretty soon.” While Browning’s 50% probability made it impossible for him to be outright wrong concerning the New Madrid zone, the earth didn’t offer him any help. In fact, there were no quakes magnitude 6 or larger anywhere in the world between November 25 and December 10.
Browning died of a heart attack less than a year later, in July 1991. In the first line of his obituary, the New York Times described him as “a climatologist who created a stir last year when he predicted a major earthquake that never occurred.” His daughter, Evelyn Browning-Garriss, still publishes The Browning Newsletter. An annual email subscription is $295, or $999 with consulting included. She did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Three years after the the earthquake that wasn’t, the USGS released a 256-page report that chronicles, in painstaking detail, the events surrounding Browning’s prediction. Complete with hundreds of media clippings, photos, and advertisements from the time, it recounted several “lessons learned” from the episode. Among them was that the scientific community must be faster in responding to predictions — regardless of their validity — when it’s apparent that they’re gaining significant media traction and that members of the media must be more diligent about verifying sources and interviewing independent experts. It also described the scare as one in which “hundreds of thousands of lives had been disrupted" and "the economic impact was many tens of millions of dollars.”
“December 1-5, 1990, had passed and the Earth did not whimper.”
In terms of casualties, Browning’s earthquake prediction does seem to have had one: David Stewart’s career.
A week after the scare, the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at what is now the University of Memphis severed ties with Southeast Missouri State’s Center for Earthquake Studies, calling Stewart’s actions “scientifically irresponsible.” Two days later, Stewart resigned his position as director. For a time, he still had his teaching job, but eventually lost that too, in 1993, and subsequently sued the university, claiming he’d been improperly forced out because of the 1990 controversy. He ultimately received a $100,000 settlement. The center closed for good in 2002.
In October, I met Stewart, now 78, at his home off a gravel road outside Marble Hill, Missouri, a town of about 1,500 in the hills 45 minutes west of the university. He reiterated his comments about Browning’s intelligence but said he’d never intended his June 1990 memo supporting him to become public. (Allen doesn’t recall how he got ahold of it.) Stewart said he had seen Browning on a taxpayer-funded trip and felt obligated to report to his colleagues.
“I was just trying to make a firsthand, accurate report on what Iben Browning had said and what he did and who he was and what his qualifications were,” he said. “I was just hoping I could present the facts and let the public make up their mind and not create any hysteria. But that’s not what happened.” He felt “kind of hurt” by the way things turned out, seeing “certain people that I thought were my friends turn on me.” At the same time, Stewart said, “I certainly have no regrets.”
After he lost his professorship, Stewart didn’t attempt to continue a traditional academic career. For years, he’d had a side job operating his own independent publishing company, and he continued to run that. He co-wrote multiple books about the New Madrid zone, including one on the evidence of former quakes around the region, and another on the 1811–12 quakes. A religious man, he became a part-time United Methodist pastor.
Then Stewart’s wife decided to go to a talk on essential oils, which she had started using, and wanted him to come along. There, he says, he had a spiritual vision. The man speaking on stage was replaced by an Egyptian priest. After him came an Old Testament prophet. “And then the third figure I saw standing up there was me, talking about oils,” Stewart told me. “And the scene kept changing to stages all over the world, and I heard a voice saying, ‘This is what I want you to do, if you’re willing to do it.’ Which, to me, that was the Lord speaking to me.”
Today, Stewart’s home doubles as headquarters of the Center for Aromatherapy Research and Education. He says his book Healing Oils of the Bible has more than 100,000 copies in print, and he travels the world to give talks on the subject. “What I’ve been able to do since  is 100 times greater than anything I could’ve if I stayed on as a professor,” he says, adding that he and his wife are now millionaires.
In the middle of my interview with Stewart, we’re interrupted by a distraught young woman outside, knocking and yelling to see if anyone is home. When Stewart lets her in, she says she has cancer and that she considers chemotherapy destructive. She’s come to him for advice. Stewart listens, then starts talking about when his wife got diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2014. It’s something he wrote about in the CARE newsletter last year. Doctors urged Stewart’s wife to consider an immediate mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation, Stewart says. But seeing conventional cancer therapies as “potentially carcinogenic and self-defeating,” the couple traveled to Ecuador so she could be given essential oil treatments unavailable in the United States, and Stewart says his wife is now cancer-free.
Within my earshot, Stewart doesn’t dispense specific advice, although the woman does leave with some frankincense. The CARE newsletter notes that its contents are for “education purposes only” and that anyone suffering from a disease or injury “should consult with a physician or other appropriate licensed health care professional.” While studies have suggested aromatherapy may improve quality of life for cancer patients, it hasn’t been studied as a treatment for cancer.
Like Iben Browning did before him, David Stewart has found his niche outside of the traditional scientific community. And he’s comfortable with that. “I have to trust my own perceptions,” Stewart told me, describing an “electromagnetic field around everything” that he sees, while most people don’t. “If someone else doesn’t see it, well, that doesn’t mean I don’t … But it gets you into trouble with people that don’t see those same things.”
In the 25 years since Browning’s December 1990 prediction, a large earthquake hasn’t occurred in the New Madrid. The largest was a magnitude 4.5 quake centered near Risco, Missouri, in May 1991. It was strong enough to be felt, but caused little damage.
The USGS seismic hazard map, however, still burns red. CUSEC’s Wilkinson said the scientific consensus is that, in the next 50 years, there’s a 7 to 10% chance of an earthquake the size of the 1811–12 quakes in the New Madrid region. For a magnitude 6 to 6.5 quake, which would be enough to cause significant problems for the region, the probability increases to 25 to 40%. According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the zone is about 30 years overdue for a quake of that magnitude.
Research indicates that prior to 1811, there were large earthquakes in the New Madrid region in 900 and 1450 A.D., and that both of those also involved a sequence of large quakes. At a seismology conference in Memphis in October, Chris Cramer, an associate professor with the Center for Earthquake Research and Information in Memphis, said there’s some indication that multiple events “may be characteristic of this zone.”
That combination of a one-two punch (and maybe more) adds up when potential damages are calculated. In 2012, risk modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated that a repeat of the 1811–12 quakes would cause insured losses of $112 billion if it occurred today, more than any other historical earthquake it examined (in second, a repeat of the 1906 San Francisco quake, with $93 billion in losses). In its own report released this summer, global reinsurer Swiss Re estimated insured losses at $150 billion; Hurricane Katrina, for comparison, saw $78 billion in insured losses, according to the firm. Those figures increase greatly when uninsured properties are taken into account.
Anecdotally, residents do believe Browning drastically increased local awareness of the seismic zone. Farrenburg has lived in southeast Missouri since 1951. But she didn’t stock up on provisions until Browning’s prediction found traction. “I went out and made sure I had plenty of earthquake supplies — food, flashlights, water, everything you might need if something happened,” she says. Though she didn’t expect anything to happen on Dec. 3, she figured it was was best to be prepared. And it turned into a habit. When an ice storm struck the area in 2009, Farrenburg had supplies on hand to stay warm and fed.
Grimsley, who now lives outside the seismic zone in northern Missouri, says she still gets anxious when she travels back to the region today. While she she would do more research on the person behind a prediction if one were ever again to rise to the level that Browning's did, she says she'd probably take precautions nevertheless. "Having kids of my own, I would think I would be very nervous."
The ’93 USGS report also notes that earthquake insurance coverage increased dramatically as a result of Browning’s prediction. In Missouri alone, homeowners spent around $22 million in 1990 to add earthquake coverage to their plans. Yet, according to statistics from the Missouri Department of Insurance, the percentage of residences with earthquake insurance in the six counties the department considers the core of the New Madrid region has steadily declined in the past decades. In 1993, earthquake coverage ranged from 46 to 73% of residences, depending on the county. By 2014, that had decreased to a range of 14 to 26%.
When it released a report on the state of earthquake coverage in August, the department dubbed the current situation a “coverage crisis.” It’s hard to say to what extent awareness is a factor. Other parts of the country have similarly low coverage. The department says recent years have seen many insurers stop selling earthquake-specific policies, and other companies have refused to sell them in the core New Madrid region. For those who can get earthquake insurance, the cost in some Missouri counties has increased 500% in the last 15 years. Still, Missouri remains the third-largest market for earthquake insurance in the U.S., trailing only California and Washington.
But given the misinformation involved, it’s hard to get too excited about the legacy of Browning’s prediction. Greg Hempen, a geophysicist who worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back in 1990, calls what happened “a double-edged sword.” Sure, it increased awareness. But it may have also made the public less likely to believe the real risk going forward.
Allen goes further, saying “the ends certainly don’t justify the means” in Browning’s case. While Allen’s coverage of the prediction was probably better than that of anyone else, he doesn’t see the period as his finest hour as a reporter. Among the questions he asks himself: Would the situation have been averted or abated if he had tried to track down a transcript of Browning’s alleged 1989 prediction before USGS did? What if he’d gotten the tip about Stewart and the psychic earlier? Does the general public assign the same credibility to all smart-sounding people with a Ph.D., and should he have accounted for that?
“Journalism has a lot to learn from the Iben Browning episode,” he says. He’s now an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, and he considers the episode to be an argument for continuing to employ reporters who specialize in science, and for allowing them the time needed to do in-depth investigative reporting of extraordinary claims.
If recent news of earthquake “predictions” are an indication, both the media and USGS have made some progress in stamping out earthquake scares before they rise to the level that Browning’s did. In August, after a New Yorker feature harrowingly described the devastation that could result from an “overdue” megaquake in the Pacific Northwest, prompting a flurry of anxious tweets and shares, several outlets ran stories with insights from seismologists, who clarified the risks. USGS representatives also responded to to The New Yorker directly, saying that “it’s important to note that total destruction is not expected in Seattle or Portland, and that society can find solutions by using sound science.” And in October, when media outlets reported on a recent study in the journal Earth and Space Science that calculated a 99.9% chance of a magnitude 5 or greater earthquake in the Los Angeles area in the next three years, USGS quickly issued a statement saying the paper failed to provide “a clear description of how those numbers were derived.”
In December 1991, the New Madrid Historical Museum held an event to mark the first anniversary of Browning’s prediction. Admission proceeds and demand for souvenirs had skyrocketed the year prior, allowing the museum to more than double its exhibit space with an addition that staff sometimes refer to, only half-jokingly, as “The Iben Browning Wing.” “People had heard of us, they had seen us on the news,” says Virginia Carlson, the director of the museum at the time. Hap’s held the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” party again, and Browning’s daughter, Evelyn Browning-Garriss, flew in for the event. She told the Associated Press that Browning harbored no bitterness about the way the previous year had turned out. Rather, “what did gratify him was watching the pragmatic way people here in the Midwest responded,” she said.
But after that, commemorations fell by the wayside. Dec. 3 was just another day this year in New Madrid, as it has been for many. The museum sees about 7,000 annual visitors, according to its current administrator, who considers the earthquake exhibit to be the main draw for about 75% of them. The focus is on the 1811–12 quakes; there’s only a brief mention of Browning. That exhibit — which the USGS report calls “excellent” — was designed with the help of David Stewart, whose books are still sold in the gift shop on the way out. There, you can also pick up one of the T-shirts that sold so well a quarter century ago. They say, simply, “It’s our fault!”
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Mount St. Helens is in Washington. A previous version of this story said it was in Oregon.
Thomas Gounley is a reporter based in southwest Missouri. He is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, and once ran the Boston Marathon while juggling.
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