"The Big One," NBC's fictional account of a major earthquake in the Los Angeles area, hadn't yet hit the airwaves when the phones started ringing at Great Shakes Inc. in Brea a month ago.
The company, which packages earthquake survival kits, wasn't getting inquiries from local folks worried about a calamity. The pickup in business came from folks living half a continent away.
Great Shakes is among a number of Orange County companies who report a spurt in business due to a surge in earthquake awareness along the Mississippi River, from Chicago to Memphis, where residents have been warned by a scientist to prepare for a major temblor in early December.
"There aren't very many businesses back there that specialize in earthquake survival," said Tommy Rainey, vice president of Emergency Lifeline, a Santa Ana firm that sells emergency survival kits and conducts earthquake preparedness seminars. "When people in Missouri think of quakes, they think of Southern California."
Climatologist Iben Browning, 72, of New Mexico said in March that an unusual alignment of planets on Dec. 2 and 3 would create a 50% chance of a major quake then on the New Madrid fault.
In response, several school districts and cities in the fault zone, which runs from Marked Tree, Ark., to Cairo, Ill., have made tentative plans to dismiss students and pull together disaster and public safety workers during the critical two-day period.
And as December draws near, newspapers and radio and television news programs in the region have focused attention on Browning's warning and reminded residents of the great New Madrid quakes in the winter of 1811-12.
A series of quakes, including four that scientists say would have measured between 8 and 8.7 on the Richter scale had that measuring system existed at the time, rocked the then sparsely settled region that winter. No other earthquake in the United States has been rated as high as 8.7. The San Francisco quake of 1905 has been rated an 8.3-magnitude temblor, and the Bay Area quake of Oct. 17, 1989, was recorded at 7.1 on the Richter scale.
The New Madrid quakes--which were felt as far east as Washington--destroyed scores of cabins and farm buildings, killed dozens of people and reportedly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River for a brief time.
As people living along the New Madrid fault have been reminded of the nearly 2-century-old devastation, the fear in the heartland has meant better business for certain companies in Southern California.
Emergency Lifeline, started in 1985 by Kathy Gannon--a native of Missouri--has seized the opportunity to plug into the region's new quake awareness by launching a program of safety seminars in Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky. The firm also has mailed 10,000 catalogues to quake-zone addresses, hoping to spur mail-order sales of its survival kits.
Great Shakes sales manager Marvin Marquis said his firm also has mailed catalogues--more than 5,000 of them--to schools and businesses in the New Madrid fault zone and has been receiving inquiries about its survival kits from people in that region for more than a month now.
The company, which has 300 employees and operates several branch offices around the country, offers a variety of retail and custom-designed survival kits that include food and water, first-aid and sanitation supplies, survival equipment and, at the upper end of the price scale, emergency shelter.
Retail kits, the type generally ordered by individuals or small businesses, cost $12.95 to $3,995, Marquis said. Custom kits can run "many thousands more," he said.
Like Emergency Lifeline, Great Shakes also conducts safety seminars and just completed a series in Chicago and Memphis that was geared to earthquake survival.
Officials at several civil and structural engineering firms in Orange County said they haven't experienced any recent increase in business, either from the Midwest or from locals responding to NBC's two-part earthquake movie, which ended Monday night.
But that, they said, is because they deal with corporate and government clients and not with individuals, who are more likely to be upset and spurred to action by a movie like "The Big One."
Shawna Sandoval, a receptionist and secretary at American First Aid Supply in Brea--another of Orange County's survival-kit marketers, said Monday that she saw an increase in phone orders after the first part of the TV movie aired Sunday night and that she expects more calls today "after the part runs that shows all the destruction."
Sandoval, who handles the company's phone orders, said she also has seen a definite increase in orders and inquiries from the Midwest in recent weeks.