An epidemic of earthquake fever has shaken a lot of Utahns, and state officials are scrambling for a cure.
The state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management and the Utah Geological Survey issued a joint statement Friday discrediting predictions reported in the media of "the big one." And the emergency management office opened an 800 number line with a recorded message to calm fears."We've had people in tears calling, asking us what to do," said Jim Tingey, who heads the earthquake preparedness office for the emergency management division. "People are taking this guy seriously."
Earlier this year, New Mexico climatologist Iben Browning predicted a major quake will rock the Midwest on Dec. 2 or 3. Browning, who claims to have predicted last year's San Francisco quake and the eruption of Mount St. Helens, says the alignment of the sun and the moon on those days will cause powerful tidal forces that could trigger earthquakes.
People in the Midwest took Browning's controversial projection seriously in September when a trembler shook several Midwest states. At that time, Browning told the Deseret News that the Wasatch Fault is also poised to slip early next month.
Tingey said since September his office has consistently received calls. But intense paranoia struck this week when television programming was inundated with shows on earthquakes. On Tuesday, "Unsolved Mysteries" devoted its show to Browning's dire predictions, then public television aired a documentary on earthquakes. And NBC-TV has been promoting a dramatic miniseries on an earthquake called "The Big One," beginning Sunday.
"We only have two people here and we have been on the phone constantly. I have a stack of messages six inches high," he said.
To handle the flood of calls, Tingey said his office recorded a message and purchased a toll free line: 1-800-75-FAULT.
The message says that federal government experts have found no scientific evidence supporting Browning's prediction of a large earthquake - 6.5 to 7.5 on the Richter scale - happening along the New Madrid seismic region of Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee on Dec. 2 or 3.
The statement issued by state agencies said it supports the federal findings, while Browning's past predictions were lucky guesses and no evidence exists showing the probability of an earthquake happening is higher in early December verses today or in several years.
"The report's conclusion that the so-called prediction is without scientific merit should allow local, state and government bodies to turn their attention back to the long and intermediate-term issues of preparing for a damaging earthquake rather than allocating scarce resources for a response and recovery effort this December."
Utah is a seismically active area. Experts predict a 20 percent chance of a major quake along the Wasatch Front in the next 50 years, and residents should be prepared for that and smaller ones, Tingey said. The message tells callers how to prepare and what to do if a temblor occurs.
But what if Browning's prediction comes to pass and extends to the Wasatch Fault? "I guess we will be leaving town," Tingey joked.