Despite a controversial projection about a massive Midwest earthquake, some residents along the New Madrid fault are more worried about getting knocked down by a TV truck than a temblor in early December.
"We've got reporters running out our ears," New Madrid Police Chief Jim Helms said. "They've been here from Washington, Michigan, Kansas City, Oklahoma and as far south as Houston, Texas. We've had them every day."New Madrid a town of about 3,300 in southeastern Missouri, has become earthquake central for much of the media zeroing in on Iben Browning's projection and the accompanying anxiety in the region.
Browning is the New Mexico scientist-business consultant who says his research shows conditions will be right for a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault on or about Dec. 3. He has projected a 50-50 chance.
He based his projections on tidal forces, which will be particularly strong at that time. Most scientists discount his tidal theory but say that eventually there will be a powerful earthquake along the fault.
Browning's projection nevertheless has led school officials in at least four states to call off classes. It also has renewed attention to earthquake preparedness in a region that experiences several hundred minor to not-even-felt tremors a year.
The New Madrid Fault zone runs roughly from Marked Tree in northeast Arkansas, across the Missouri Bootheel and up to near Cairo in southern Illinois. It's named for New Madrid, which was destroyed by a series of strong quakes in the early 1800s that were felt all the way to the East Coast.
Since reports of Browning's work came to light earlier this year, the media have focused increasing attention on the New Madrid fault zone.
Television stations from throughout the region have done ratings-month series on the projection, the fault zone and earthquake preparedness. Reporters have descended from Detroit, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Tampa, Fla. People magazine and the television program "Unsolved Mysteries" also have been to town.
Although New Madrid residents have become used to being interviewed, the town is bracing for Monday, Dec. 3, when the reporters, photographers, engineers and producers are expected back en masse. Helms said three blocks may be roped off to accommodate the television satellite trucks that will roll into town.
Rumors are flying: Dan Rather will be here, Willard Scott is coming. Motel rooms have been snatched up, interviews arranged.
Mayor Dick Phillips is understanding. He'll have to work as usual at Phillips Fertilizer Co. on Dec. 3 and then conduct a city council meeting that evening, but he'll also try to be available for interviews.
The situation puts the news media in an interesting predicament - is the possibility of an earthquake, discounted by most experts, a story? Do you send a reporter just in case, or do you ignore it and hope you don't miss what could be the region's biggest story of the year?
Editors across the country are deciding.
"We're going mainly expecting nothing to happen," said Susan Okie, acting science editor at the Washington Post. "This is a story because of the excitement it's generated."
At least one of the major television networks is planning to send a national correspondent. Dozens of network affiliates will be on hand; others will be stationed in Memphis, the closest big city to the fault zone.
"We're approaching this as a news event in itself, the concern that this prediction has caused," said John Paxson, a producer for CBS News, who will be traveling from Dallas. "While most experts kind of sniff at the idea that this man can predict earthquakes, the prediction is there and a lot of people are very worried about it."
The Associated Press will be there. Cable News Network is planning live coverage. NBC is still deciding whether to send a correspondent or rely on affiliates.
ABC News has made the decision not to go.