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A big chunk of the U.S. heartland was on an edgy earthquake watch Saturday, approaching the zero hour for a predicted tremor that could disrupt everything from Elvis Presley's grave to the course of the muddy Mississippi River.

The quake prediction -- met with almost universal scorn by geologists and officially branded as baseless by U.S. government scientists -- has already upset life in several states.

Schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday across the region, giving tens of thousands of children a holiday. City officials in St. Louis ordered fire trucks parked outside for the duration so they wouldn't be trapped in collapsed firehouses.

Hospitals have drawn up emergency plans. Water, gas and electric utilities have scrambled for back-up systems if the worst happens. Police and fire department leaves have been canceled in many areas, and the National Guard was placed on standby in Kentucky.

Earthquake insurance sales have zoomed.

At the bottom of it all is Iben Browning, a New Mexico biologist, self-taught climatologist and $2,500-a-day business consultant. He predicted a 50-50 chance of an earthquake of at least 7.0 on the Richter scale 48 hours either side of Dec. 3 along the New Madrid fault.

That fissure runs through five states for about 120 miles from Arkansas into the southern tip of Illinois.

Browning based his forecast in part on unusually strong tidal forces affecting the planet during the period, reaching a 60-year peak on Monday.

He claims to have predicted last year's San Francisco quake, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington State, and recently warned that northern California and part of Japan may also be at high risk during the current period.

Earthquake experts from around the country have strongly discounted Browning's projection; they say it might just as well have been reached by tossing darts at a calendar.

Browning is chief scientist for Summa Medical Corp., an Albuquerque biotechnology research and development company.

He has a doctorate degree in physiology and bachelor's degrees in physics and math. He has studied climatology on his own and publishes "The Browning Newsletter" on world climates.

The New Madrid fault snapped during the winter of 1811-12 with what may have been the most powerful earthquake ever in what is now the continental United States.

The worst of a series of shocks would have hit 8.5 on the Richter scale, had measuring devices been invented at the time, and the quake was said to have rung church bells 1,000 miles away on the East Coast.

The San Francisco quake of 1903 measured 8.3 while the Alaska quake of 1964 hit 8.5.

Initially, many state and local officials were pleased to see all the interest in the subject, but now some of them are unhappy.

"He (Browning) has caused us undue hardship," said Charles Walker, operations officer with the Missouri Emergency Management Agency. "I wish the panic had not gone along with the preparedness."

Walker said that the forecast had seriously disrupted Missouri's plans to respond to earthquakes and other disasters because his staff had spent all of its time answering thousands of telephone calls.

Federal earthquake officials say they've never seen an earthquake forecast become so entrenched and prompt so much planning.

"It may be because it's the first time someone has predicted one in the Midwest or it may be because of Browning's scientific background," said Virgil Frizzell, a spokesman for the Geological Survey's Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering.

New Madrid, Mo., a quiet cotton belt town 150 miles south of St. Louis, found itself at the unwelcome center of all the attention.

"It will be as close to normal as we can get Monday," said a spokeswoman at the local chamber of commerce. "Nothing out of the ordinary is planned. It will be just like a normal day. Most stores will be open. We are expecting several hundred visitors, mostly news media."

She was busy denying rumors sweeping the region that the Mississippi River -- which flowed backward during the shocks of 1811 -- was again behaving strangely.

"It's not bubbling. Water levels are not dropping. My phone has been ringing off the hook," she said.

Scientists have long predicted that the region is due for another severe quake.

Such a tremor could cause damage as far north as Chicago and deal severe destruction to Memphis and other cities along the Mississippi.

One night club owner in Memphis, however, had his eyes on Graceland, Presley's home and burial site.

"If the earth opens up, I can't wait to see if Elvis is really in that grave," he said.

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