Jean Matua “From the Heart”
There is little more disconcerting than having the earth under your feet feel like it’s falling away. I’ve never been on a ship at sea, but I’m guessing that may be worse.
Southern California has had thousands of shocks, pre-shocks, and after-shocks in the past week. So far, the largest is 7.1 magnitude – which is pretty strong.
Fortunately, the epicenter was in a less densely populated area in the desert. It could have been devastating had it happened in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
I lived in Northern California for 16 or 17 years, and I well remember earthquakes. The memories are a mixture of comical and pretty scary.
My first earthquake, I remember looking out the window onto the street. I had remembered hearing that animals behave strangely when there’s an earthquake. (Actually, they behave strangely before an earthquake. One guy in the L.A. area could predict earthquakes with 90% accuracy just looking for a sharp increase in lost pet ads in the local newspapers a day or two before an “event.”) I don’t know what I was expecting: elephants storming down the street, housecats swinging from the trees, dogs cowering behind fire hydrants?
At the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, there’s an “earthquake table.” It’s a low-rise table, about 10 x 15 feet or so. You step up onto the table with a bunch of strangers, and they shake the platform. The point is to show the different types of earthquakes, particularly the rolling versus the jolting. With the table, they simulate the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. (It was more the fires afterward that caused the devastation, but the fires were because of the quake.) That was an up-and-down, jolting quake. Those cause much more damage than the rolling ones.
We used to joke that we could tell the direction of the epicenter of an earthquake by listening to car alarms: wherever they started to go off, that’s where the earthquake started. One by one, vehicle alarms would go off in sequence, like a wave of its own.
Every morning when I’d water the plants on my little patio (of the 600-square-foot apartment that now rents for nearly $4,000 a month), the water would run off in a different direction. The earth was shifting daily, sometimes hourly. That’s a little unsettling.
Sidewalks could shift daily, up and down. I tripped one day when a “ridge” appeared in the sidewalk I travelled many times a day. It was one of those “I’ve fallen but I can’t get up” scenes; I’d broken my elbow and knee, and the guys sitting out on their cig break couldn’t have been bothered.
The San Andreas fault, the one that pretty much slices California from top to bottom, literally runs through the backyards of some of the people I worked with. They could stand with one foot on each side – but why would anyone ever want to?
I was in my car, stopped at a stoplight on the University Avenue bridge in Palo Alto when the Loma Prieta quake hit in 1987 – the one that interrupted the World Series in San Francisco. No one knew of that particular fault before that day. I felt my “land yacht” Buick shake and jerk. I thought it was idling rough. Then I saw the light pole jerk side-to-side, violently. I was standing on the brake pedal with both feet trying to calm my car, but it was the bridge and the earth that needed calming, not the car. When I got back to my apartment, everyone was gathered around the pool; no one dared go inside. Half of the water had splashed out of the pool, like when you shake a glass of water. It was only when someone brought down a tiny battery-operated TV that we saw the Oakland Bay Bridge flattened, “pancaked,” that we all realized the gravity of the situation. Even now, I tremble thinking of how awful that all was. The rescues, the searches, the damage. For more than a year afterward, several of the overpasses I drove under to get to work were reinforced – with scaffolding made of wooden 2x4s. (Let that sit in for a moment.)
Earthquakes are scary, not just while they’re shaking, but long afterward. Minnesota has earthquakes, too, but they’re so deep that most of us will never feel them.