Just a Thought — Memory banks put to the test: What happened on Dec. 2, 1990?
Posted: Friday, December 5, 2008 9:12 pm
Remember where you were Dec. 2, 1990? While most people are quick to recall where they were on other dates — such as Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists attacked the United States or Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — the December date may not initially trigger an immediate response in the memory banks. However, if the name Iben Browning is mentioned along with the date, many heads will nod, accompanied by the thought, “Ah, yes, now I remember.” That was the response I witnessed from the congregation at First United Methodist Church in Union City recently when the Rev. David Russell delivered his sermon, “Being Prepared,” and used Browning as a lead-in to his sermon. First things first. Yes, I heard the sermon first-hand and, secondly, I was actually listening to it. For those of you whose memory is still a little hazy, let me offer a little recap of the scenario from 18 years ago this week. Dr. Browning was a scientist who studied artificial intelligence, bioengineering, long-term weather forecasting, climate changes and, most memorably, earthquake prognostication. As most everyone around northwest Tennessee, southwest Kentucky, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri is aware, we’re sitting on the New Madrid Fault. A series of earthquakes — some measuring as strong as 8.1 on the Richter Scale — occurred in 1811-12 and resulted in the formation of Reelfoot Lake. While none of us remembers those quakes, we’ve grown up hearing and reading all about them. Many of us have even felt a temblor or two but never anything more than a mere brief vibration. Almost two decades ago, Dr. Browning projected an increased risk of a major earthquake on the New Madrid Fault. However, unlike other so-called experts who simply say there is an increased likelihood that there will be a quake along the fault line within the next 50 to 100 years, the New Mexico climatologist predicted the region had a 50-50 chance of experiencing an earthquake Dec. 2 or Dec. 3 of 1990. While skeptics pooh-poohed the forecast, it had a snowball effect among area residents and national media. As the ominous dates approached, many people got caught up in the hoopla and left town for a few days “just in case.” On the other hand, my girlfriend at the time (and future wife) opted to drive up here from Mississippi to be with me. Some may question her intelligence on both counts, but that’s a story for another day. Many others, including my mother, busily readied “earthquake preparedness kits.” While we laughed about the whole situation, she remained focused on the task of getting us all prepared — shopping for trash cans, which she filled with bottled water, canned food, flashlights, blankets, first aid kits, etc… At the newspaper, we had a series of stories under the heading “Quake Watch ’90” that showed what area people were doing to get prepared. In one of articles appearing, Friday, Nov. 30, 1990, Obion County Civil Defense director Charlie Roberts shared his thoughts on the prediction: “The chances of having the earthquake Monday (Dec. 3) are no greater than us having one before dark tonight.” He told the many worried folks who called him to “stay calm; don’t panic.” However, concerns were ob-vious throughout the county, including the schools, where 750 of the 1,800 students in the Union City School System were absent and 1,796 of the 4,066 Obion County School System students missed school Dec. 3. The crowd at that night’s Union City Christmas Parade was light and donations to the annual Chimes for Charity fund-raising drive were lower than usual. However, as everyone knows now, the ground didn’t shake, buildings didn’t tumble and no one got hurt. The New Madrid, Mo., mayor may have summed it up best. “We owe him a debt of gratitude. I respected the man’s intelligence. In this particular case, thank God, his prediction didn’t come to pass, but it made us realize that we had never made any kind of preparations for a natural disaster. We owe him for that.” As for those of you wondering whether I heard any of the rest of the sermon, the answer is, yes. Brother David used the aforementioned story about being prepared for the earthquake that was forecast to remind everyone they need to be prepared for Jesus’ return — not a bad thought as we approach Christmas. ——— Editor’s note: Browning died of a heart attack July 18, 1991. Published in The Messenger 12.5.08