The New Madrid Earthquake Scare of 1990

Sep 20, 2016

It seems like Almost Yesterday that residents of southeast Missouri became keenly interested in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. The series of 19th century tremors along the New Madrid fault have been reported as the most severe in the history of North America. Stories continue to be told, true or not, that the Missouri quakes were of such force that they rang church bells in the East and caused the Mississippi River to flow backward.

This new level of historical curiosity was motivated by an account from Dr. Iben Browning who asserted that the 19th century quakes had been caused by tidal forces and that similar conditions would exist on December 3, 1990.

Dr. Browning did not predict that there would be an earthquake on that date, but that the conditions would be similar to that of 1811-12, and thus, the probabilities increased.

Discussion of this controversial theory received limited attention until 8:19 A.M., Wednesday, September 26, 1990. At that moment an earthquake measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale shook the region.

Residents reported hearing a loud “crack” followed by several seconds of vigorous shaking. Most people in the region felt the quake and responded. Some raced down stairs and out of doors, others stood quietly, in wonder. Everyone now knew that earthquakes were real – and a bit frightening.

December 3, 1990, became an important date. During October and November, a wide range of preparations and reactions occurred.  Some residents panicked, some scoffed, only a few ignored. 

On December 3, the town of New Madrid, Missouri was crowded with the curious, but the New Madrid fault was quiet – there was no earthquake. But it seems like almost yesterday...