Column: Swine flu and earthquakes

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on May 5, 2009

I can’t help but be reminded of Iben Browning with the current swine flu scare.

Mr. Iben Browning was my hometown’s version of the boogeyman. The man scared the stuffed grape leaves out of me, all my friends and quite a few of our parents when I was in school.

Browning was a “scientist” who predicted that a major earthquake would happen on the New Madrid Fault Line sometime around Dec. 3, 1990. My hometown of Evansville, Ind., a city in the southwestern tip of the state, would be quite shaken up if that fault line started rumbling.

So, of course, everybody freaked out. Parents pulled their kids out of school. The TV news suspended all viewings of water-skiing squirrels to focus on the imminent disaster. People fought each other to buy earthquake emergency kits. Those students who did go to school had to practice for an earthquake by sitting under their desks, which was far more palatable than tornado drills, at least, which required us to headbutt a wall and stick our rear ends up in the air.

And since believing in the earthquake meant missing school, I jumped right on the ground-moving bandwagon. I was an easy sell. I would have believed Santa Claus was coming to town with a nuke if it had meant a day off from school.

My mother, however, wasn’t taken in.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “Nobody can tell exactly when an earthquake will happen.”

And so I went to school. But I sure didn’t have many classmates with me that day. In fact, I think we were let out after half a day because of the lack of attendance. My mother wasn’t pleased.

No earthquake happened. We all let out a sigh of relief and laughed at ourselves.

This swine flu scare has reminded me a lot of those few days in Evansville. Last week, people were buying face masks in droves. Four area schools shut their doors after probable cases were found among their students. Hundreds of people swamped the emergency rooms at hospitals, worried swine flu had gotten them. (I can’t say much. A few more coughs last week, and I would have joined them.)

And then Tuesday we found out that we probably didn’t need to worry all that much.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that the swine flu virus had turned out to be milder than initially feared and that the government would stop advising schools to close.

In other words, you can all go back to your normal life – at least until the next “emergency.”

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for how we reacted, though. Nobody knew what we were facing when this first broke, and it was killing people in Mexico. I can’t fault any parent or school district for pulling kids out of school. When there is a possible danger – real or perceived – you protect the children. It’s that simple.

If anything, this helps prepare us.

Iben Browning and the swine flu scare essentially were good practice. Sure, it turned out that there was no wolf either time. But don’t forget that Mr. Wolf does eventually show up in the story.

While Browning might have gotten the date wrong, he was right about the New Madrid Fault Line. On April 18, 2008, almost two decades after his initial prediction, New Madrid woke up and a 5.2-magnitude earthquake jostled the Midwest. A little rougher, and some serious damage could have happened.

And some scientists are saying a more potent version of the swine flu could be back in the fall. We very well might not have seen the last of this.

Did some people overreact this time? Sure. But I’d rather overreact than not do enough in case the worst does happen. Better safe than sorry. And even my mother would agree to that.

Joe Grace is the editor of The Chronicle. Write to him at jgrace@kcchronicle.com or call him at 630-845-5268. 

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