Earthquake or not, some Utah residents don't want to be caught.
Caught without food, that is, or other survival essentials.Iben Browning's prediction is causing some sizable tremors. Browning, 72, is the New Mexico biologist and business consultant whose prediction of a major temblor on Dec. 2 or 3 sparked Quake Fever in the Midwest, ratttling through the popular media with a shake that would probably rate at least 7.3 on the Richter scale.
Browning's theory is based on this simple fact: The sun, Earth and moon will be in alignment Sunday and Monday, the Earth's closest pass to the full moon in 16 years. Browning believes that the strong gravitational pull that will occur can also trigger earthquakes.
Quake fever has rocked the Midwest: Schools in four states have canceled classes Monday. And people who live along the New Madrid Fault in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana are being called upon to offer up "sound bites" for droves of visiting national reporters.
Utah's own Wasatch Fault - that geologic phenomenon that residents have driven across and built over for years - isn't getting the same level of media attention, despite being mentioned as another likely quake site by Browning.
Utahns are gearing up, though, scrambling for protection in case Operation Shake, Rattle and Roll is actually deployed. Insurance agents say their phones are ringing off the hooks, while retailers can't keep emergency supplies on the shelves. School officials are fielding phone calls from worried parents. And state officials have set up a hot line to answer earthquake calls.
On Friday morning, Jim Tingey, earthquake program manager for the state office of Comprehensive Emergency Management, stared at the rubble of the more than 40 pink phone messages piled on his desk. "The curious thing to me is I have been doing this, earthquake preparedness, for going on seven years. And I could never get people so stirred up.
"Callers want to know stuff like will their house fall on them. And then they tell me their address.
"Not only that, they're saying: `Is it going to happen on Sunday or Monday?' I really have to say to them there's no scientific validity to the prediction on those dates.
"And then they say: `Yeah, but what if you're wrong?' "
But Tingey and other officials are more worried about the aftershocks if the predicted earthquake doesn't rumble through on schedule.
"It's the crying wolf syndrome. When the earthquake does not happen next week, are people going to say that Jim Tingey and the Emergency Management Department and the geologists are all wacky? I have a feeling that this quackery may rub off on legitimate scientists. That could happen and people may be less willing to take steps after this."
Quake fever is nothing new to Utah, a state that takes that old Boy Scout motto of "Be prepared" seriously. The words "emergency preparedness" bear the weight of a religious mantra for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose leaders have for years preached the wisdom of storing food in case of natural disasters.
"Up until the last 14 months, I've experienced little or no interest in earthquake insurance," says Bruce Norton, owner of Fashion Place Insurance and a 15-year veteran of the insurance industry.
Since the San Francisco earthquake last year and this latest prediction, Norton says he's witnessed a 20 percent increase in the number of homeowners who are buying earthquake insurance.
Brian Pugmire, owner of the Pugmire Insurance Agency in Holladay, agrees. Pugmire says he's writing a lot more earthquake policies than usual, including 20 he's sold this month alone. "Normally, we'll write four or five a year."
One of Norton's recent customers is Mark Chatfield, who lives on the fault line in the Cottonwood Heights area. Chatfield says he's been pricing earthquake insurance for two or three years.
But it was Browning's prediction that moved him actually to invest in a policy. "It's an economic decision as opposed to an act of desperation," Chatfield says. "Our house is completely paid for, so if it goes down the tube, everything we own does too."
"People are taking this very seriously," says Donna Geisler, manager of Emergency Essentials in Sandy. Geisler admits the prediction has translated into free advertising for her company, which sells food storage items."It looks like Christmas Eve in here every day, all day long. There's a lot of people who are taking him (Browning) literally.
"We don't have time to stock our shelves. They're taking things out of boxes. They're taking things off the truck."
Even though customers are polite in their frenzy, Geisler says, "You can feel that fever.
"As it gets closer and closer to Dec. 3, it's getting more and more intense."
All this hoopla was raised by a prediction that seismologists say is based on nothing more than random selection. "Somebody else who is throwing darts at a calendar would do as well," says William Ellsworth, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.
Ellsworth says the tidal theory has been kicking around for years, but hasn't been proven scientifically.
While Browning's prediction has been a minor annoyance for seismologists - who say earthquakes may not roll on schedule this weekend but they will come some time - the good news is the media hoopla has focused more attention on emergency planning.
In New Mexico, even Browning's people are distancing themselves from the shaking. A woman who answered Browning's home phone, who would only give her name as Mrs. Browning, claims her husband didn't intend to create an unnatural disaster.
"Absolutely not," she says. "He only mentioned his theory to a client (on vacation), and that's how it got out. It's a media circus as far as we're concerned." She said they received 70 phone calls on Wednesday alone.
Earthquake forecasts centering around the Wasatch Fault aren't new, either. Prominent geologist G.K. Gilbert beat Browning to the punch, or shake, as it were. He wrote a letter to a Salt Lake newspaper in 1883, predicting that a Big One would soon rattle the Wasatch Fault.
"We're still waiting for Gilbert's earthquake," Ellsworth says.
Insuring your home
The cost of insuring your home against earthquake:
- $120 to $130 per year on a wood frame home with the estimated value of $75,000.
- $582 to $615 per year on a $75,000 brick home.
(Policy quotes supplied by Brian Pugmire and Bruce Norton. Insuring your personal belongings costs extra.)