An old earthquake has given Myrl Rhine Mueller new fame.

The Paragould, Ark., resident spent years researching and writing about the devastating New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12. Her effort culminated in a book that's reaching a lot larger audience than she ever expected. Thanks, that is, to the warning by climatologist Iben Browning of an even chance of an earthquake 48 hours either side of Dec. 3 along the New Madrid Fault.While Browning's notion has - so far - failed to materialize, Mueller has gotten rewards from the market economy. The $20 book - she had only 500 copies printed - is attracting more readers than she ever expected and has brought her attention without the controversy.

"This is my 15 minutes of fame, I guess," Mueller said recently.

Her book is "Lost in the Annals: History and Legends of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-12," and one of the chief sources is a witness to what may have been the most powerful earthquake ever in what is now the continental United States.

"Desirous of offering the most correct information to society at large . . . I am induced to give publicity to a few remarks concerning a phenomenon of the most alarming nature."

So began 21-year-old William Leigh Pierce's letter to the editor of the New York Post in December 1811 after a firsthand experience of one of the earthquakes.

A student at the time, he was on a holiday flatboat trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans when the first of the three great quakes hit. He wrote about it in a letter posted from New Orleans Dec. 19, 1811.

On the night of Dec. 15, he wrote, the flatboats pulled off onto a sandbar 116 miles below the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

"Precisely at 2 o'clock on the morning of the 16th . . . we were all alarmed by the violent and convulsive aggitation (sic) of the boats," he wrote, "accompanied by a noise similar to which would have been produced by running over a sandbar."

Pierce logged the shocks, minute by minute, recording about 50 in all, Mueller said.

Mueller said she first became interested in the subject as a child during a vacation visit to Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner of Tennessee, which was formed as a result of the 1811-12 quakes.