The Great Earthquake Scare of 1990

by | Jun 11, 2021


There’s a man of conviction
And although he’s getting old
Mr. Browning has a prediction
And we’ve all been told

-“New Madrid” by Uncle Tupelo

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: the largest earthquake ever recorded in the lower 48 states didn’t occur in California — it was on February 7, 1812, near the town of New Madrid in southeast Missouri. There is some question about the exact magnitude of the quake, but it is thought to have registered around an 8.0 — which is 44 times stronger than the 6.9 magnitude San Francisco earthquake in 1989 that caused massive damage, killed 63 people, and injured nearly 4,000. The 1812 quake entirely destroyed the town of New Madrid, damaged homes and toppled chimneys 150 miles away in St. Louis, and caused the nearby Mississippi River to run backward. It rang church bells in Philadelphia and was felt as far away as Canada.

I grew up in St. Louis and learned about the devastation of the New Madrid earthquake and the possibility of another big quake happening. Every so often we feel minor earthquakes in St. Louis but rarely is there any damage. The possibility of a big earthquake isn’t something that St. Louisans usually think about much — except for a few months in 1990.

In August 1990, 178 years after the big quake, climatologist Iben Browning made an unusual prediction that another major earthquake would occur in the New Madrid seismic zone. That Browning predicted another New Madrid earthquake wasn’t the unusual thing about his prediction; the United States Geological Survey and other earthquake experts periodically issue statements warning of New Madrid fault earthquake risks. What made Browning’s prediction extraordinary was its precision — he predicted that a major earthquake would happen on December 3, 1990. Given that Browning allegedly had predicted both the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and 1989 San Fransisco earthquake, people in the Central U.S. paid attention to his prediction and acted on it. As December 3rd approached, residents in the region panicked. Stores were cleaned out as people stocked up on supplies to create so-called “Browning Bunkers” full of food, water, medical supplies (however, I don’t remember any toilet paper hoarding, we had to wait until COVID-19 for that to happen LOL). Some just chose to leave the area as the predicted date for the earthquake approached. Schoolchildren throughout the region practiced earthquake drills by getting under their desks and covering their heads (which is the same protocol for tornadoes by the way).

A story concerning my father illuminates the panic that gripped the region. In 1990 my father worked at a bank and his office was in a skyscraper. After Browning’s prediction, his bank issued protocols for what to do if and when the earthquake hit. On each floor, an employee was specially trained to ensure earthquake preparedness and take charge when the earthquake hit. My father was tapped as the earthquake leader of his floor and was provided with an earthquake kit containing canned food, water, first aid essentials, walkie-talkies, and mylar space blankets. His bank even bought body bags! December 3, 1990, was on a Monday and his bank declared it to be a day off for all but a skeleton crew of essential employees to keep the bank running.

During this commotion I was a junior at the University of Missouri, 125 miles to the west of St. Louis, and largely outside the New Madrid fault danger zone. As December 3rd approached my parents urged me to not come home so that I wouldn’t put myself at risk. I hadn’t really paid attention to the earthquake hoopla and had no plans on returning home that week anyway. But their concern for me did spark the idea of having my fraternity throw an earthquake party the weekend prior to December 3rd — which we did and it was epic.

The predicted quake didn’t happen during December 1990, and a major earthquake in the central region of the U.S. still hasn’t occurred. But the chance of a major earthquake still persists. For example, a Federal Emergency Management Agency report stated a 90% chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake between 1996 and 2046 along the New Madrid fault. But even a 50-year range may be too specific as there is no good predictive model for earthquakes. The New Madrid fault may produce a major earthquake tomorrow or remain relatively dormant for hundreds or thousands of years. We just don’t know.

Earthquakes are impossible to predict. This is true even though earthquake science has produced models that precisely explain how and why earthquakes occur. Thus, earthquakes are a perfect example of the notion that just being able to explain something doesn’t render it predictable. In fact, it is the rule rather than the exception that explanatory models aren’t good at predicting. For example, evolution is a model that explains the change of species over time but it cannot predict how a species will change in the future. We see that with the seasonal flu — the virus mutates but we can’t predict how it will mutate. Another example is climate science where robust models explain how and why the earth’s climate changes, including the effects of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change models don’t do a good job of predicting what the climate will be like in the future. In fact, some of the biggest criticism by man-made climate change skeptics is that climate change predictions have been wrong in the past. Climate change prediction models, due to the challenge of modeling so many factors, are not very accurate.

Here’s the indie rock band Wilco performing “New Madrid” live (which is a song by the band Uncle Tupelo — a predecessor band). It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.


  1. Really enjoyed this – wrote some comprehension questions and am using it in my 8th grade classroom where I’ve been telling my students for YEARS that I REMEMBER this. I was in 8th grade myself (in Northern Illinois) and I too was traumatized by this enough that its been seared into my memory – the drills at school, the flashlights Walmart was handing out for free.

    So yesterday, as they were working on their earthquake assignment, I googled “December 3rd 1990 New Madrid quake” (yes, I even remember the date – it was my aunt’s birthday) and your article (and some other great ones) came up. I was relieved to see that I had not invented this in my head, and I’m now fascinated.

    And being from Chicago area, I am a huge Wilco fan, so…mind blown. I’m less familiar with Uncle Tupelo, but I did recognized the band and I know Tweedy spent some years in the St. Louis metro area.

    Anyway…thanks for the article and enlightening me – and now my students.

  2. Your fraternity got it right while older “wiser” people were scared to death. Iben’s prediction was one of the most egregious scaremongering events in Missouri ever.
    Party on frat boys!

  3. While the learned seismographer eats his dinner, cheerfully unconscious of the coming earthquake, his dog shivers beneath the table.

    • That’s a really great visual. Thx.


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