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Districts Take Precautions for Predicted Midwest Temblor

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A prediction that a major earthquake will occur in the Midwest in early December is causing some educators in the region to evaluate their ability to cope with such a disaster.

Schools in at least five communities that lie on or near the New Madrid fault line--a historically active fault that extends from southern Illinois through northern Arkansas--will be closed for several days in early December. And many other districts, educators said, are adopting earthquake-education programs and are taking steps to limit damage from a temblor.

Just last week, an earthquake registering 4.6 on the Richter scale caused minor damage in the area.

Although seismologists have long said that the New Madrid area is likely to be the center of a major earthquake in the next several decades, educators and others began to pay more attention to the fault earlier this year, when an independent climatologist predicted there was a high probability of a major quake there on Dec. 3, give or take 48 hours.

The climatologist, Iben Browning, bases his predictions on tidal forces, which he says will be very strong during early December. According to published reports, Mr. Browning's views are taken seriously in some circles because he is credited with predicting last October's Loma Prieta earthquake in California.

Most scientists disagree with Mr. Browning, however, saying that tidal forces cannot be positively associated with seismic activity.

Last week, the Arkansas education department sent a memo to all of the state's school districts recommending that schools near the fault develop an earthquake-safety program. The memo, which included information about earthquake hazards and instructions for safety drills, said "there is no reason to believe that an earthquake will be triggered by tidal forces on December 3, 1990."

"Just because Dr. Browning's prediction is invalid is no reason to be complacent," it concluded.

Historic Quake

In 1811-12, a series of what might have been the most powerful earthquakes ever on the continent shook the New Madrid area. Scientists believe several would have exceeded 8 on the Richter scale, which had not yet been invented.

A quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale is highly likely in the region within 50 years, scientists say.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that more than 70 million people in 44 states risk experiencing a major earthquake over the next several decades, virtually all schools and other institutions outside of California are unprepared for a quake. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1989.)

Of the five states that surround the New Madrid fault--Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee--only Arkansas requires earthquake education, said Katharyn E.K. Ross, an education specialist at the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This year, the Missouri legislature adopted a bill that requires new school buildings in the districts closest to the fault to be built according to seismic design codes, she said.

Taking Precautions

Educators in the region said last week that while they do not necessarily believe Mr. Browning's prediction, they felt it was wise to take precautions against earthquakes.

Public schools in Earle and Wilson, Ark., will be closed around the time of the predicted earthquake. And in Missouri, at least three districts have also said they plan to close on those dates.

Officials said their decisions were based on expectations that many parents will keep their children out of school on those dates. In some communities, they said, businesses also plan to close, allowing entire families to evacuate the area.

"Since there is anxiety, we will not be in session at all," said Rogers Ford, principal of Rivercrest High School in Wilson, which is on the fault line. "We would rather have school when students are here.''

Mr. Ford, like other educators in the area, said his school was taking precautions, such as securing objects that could fall during a quake and training teachers and other personnel.

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