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The tremors

July 18, 2001

 

Having lived my entire life in California, northern and southern, suffice to say I have felt my share of earthquakes. Hell, I've felt my share *and* your share.

 

Often, when I'm just sitting still reading, or lying in bed, a sensation will wash over me that everything is beginning to shake - or is about to begin. My heart will pound as I suddenly become very tense, awaiting the onslaught. It doesn't come. It's just the oversensitive respiratory system of an overly-earthquaked individual. During those seconds, my well-trained mind starts telling my body, frozen in tense fear, which doorway to run to when the moment of confirmation comes that this is indeed The Big One. Then it passes, and I feel like a dope for letting it happen again... those funny little panics. But I've had them since I was 2 or 3 years old, after I felt my first earthquake, which was a doozy -- still to be surpassed by another more than 20 years later. Since that one, seven years ago, the panic of impending earthquake doom has only increased; and since moving to San Francisco, it seems to be yet worse. Believe it or not, I even get The Panic when I'm in England, which eases away into dizzying relief upon realizing where I am.

 

Accuracy is impossible as I didn't ever actually document this: but I can estimate I've felt around 30 or 40 earthquakes in my life. Some stand out in my mind more than others; some were bundled into a large number over a short period of time all melding together in my memory. After the 6.4 San Fernando Valley quake of 1971, which I felt as an infant living in, gulp, the San Fernando Valley, I don't recall any other earthquakes until I was around 11. During that restful period I managed to lose The Panic, and future quakes were of a much more manageable size, for the most part; so I eventually began to enjoy the funky sensation of my own house jiving around me, creaking and bouncing slightly. When I lived in Pasadena and in Long Beach, the earthquakes were so frequent that I became deeply lackadaisical about them. Shootings wee so much more common in those places, and so much more dangerous; comparatively, seismic activity fell into another category a few notches lower, relegated down to "only an earthquake".

 

That first one I was really too young to recall very well. It happened around 6 am, and I was only 3 or 4. I was awake, playing with my brother in his room. I was playing with my toys, and David was building a block tower in the middle of the floor, on top of a piece of board for support. We finished, and David put the rest of the blocks back into their shoebox home, and put the box onto the shelf of his closet. The next thing I remember is running into my sleeping parents' room, yelling like crazy, and hearing the box of blocks falling off the shelf in the closet.

 

Our parents comforted my brother and me, and after we were less scared, we went back to David's room to explore the damage. As a little child, I didn't quite put together what the crashing noise of the falling blocks had been, and I was really sure the crashing and the shaking were all part of the same big monster coming to get us. David opened his closet door and showed me the mess of multicolored wooden blocks, and that eased my mind a little. Only when my Dad walked into the room did we realize that David's block tower had withstood the earthquake! Clearly we had an engineer in the making, only 6 years old and standing proudly in his flannel pajamas.

 

When I was 11 or so, we were living up here in the Bay Area during a spate of quakes. The first in the series hit while I was sitting in my 7th-grade classroom, and I was sure it was the guy behind me jiggling my desk with his feet on the back legs, as he often did. "Knock it off, Mike!" I stage-whispered. "It's not me!" he said aloud. The entire room was beginning to buzz with confused chatter, when finally the Principal came on over the intercom and said, "YOU SHOULD ALL BE UNDER YOUR DESKS, IN EARTHQUAKE POSITION." We all just looked blankly at the intercom, at our teacher Mr. Casillas, and at each other. The earthquake was over. Did we still have to get under our desks?

 

Turned out that was the beginning of what would be a spate of quakes in the region. The best one took place one evening later that week, around 8pm when I was sitting on the couch watching tv alone with my mom. The apartment began to shake, and my brother's 100 gallon aquarium started in with its own personal small tsunami. My mom yelled, "Susan! Go hold the aquarium!" I sat there frozen. "Go hold the aquarium!!" she shouted again, and smacked my leg. I crawled on the floor across the room to the aquarium sitting raised about a foot off the floor on cinderblocks, knelt in front of it and put one hand on it. The room was still shaking, and as I sat there even with the tv still on, all I could hear was the pilot light on the wall heater next to me: it was switching on and off, on and off, over and over, with a "click" and a "shhhh".... and a "click" and a "shhhh." I was mesmerized.

 

Now, if you haven't done the math yet on the hundred gallon aquarium, let me go ahead and assure you that 100 gallons of water, plus the huge glass tank itself, add up to probably about a ton. The rectangular ton shook in the earthquake, and I put my hand on it to... what? If it was going to fall, I would have been only a blip in its downward path. It would have crushed me.

 

Meanwhile David had been down the street at his favorite haunt, Radio Shack. He came home later and said that when the quake had struck, he was just putting his hand on the door to enter the store, and just then the shockwaves started and the door jammed shut. David says he turned and looked out into the parking lot, and saw all the cars riding an invisible magic carpet, bobbing in waves right where they sat. These quakes were in the low 5's on the Richter Scale.

 

I recall so many others after that: the one that happened when I was a college student living at my grama's house in 1987, sitting on the floor one night with her hair dryer on my head - you know, the old-fashioned kind that's a square unit with knobs and a hose fitted to a plastic cap. I had just finished dying my hair purple, and was sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed reading. All I could hear was the sweet, high hum of the dryer and the whoosh of air past my ears under the cap. As I read, I became aware of a strange sensation of my body moving outside my own power. I looked over my book at my legs stretched out in front of me and crossed at the ankles; and they were rocking from side to side. Cool.

 

Another one, a bigger one, happened while I still lived there. It was morning and it damn near shook me out of bed. The big sliding glass door in my room was twisting in its frame and making horrible noises.

 

Another time, by coincidence, I was also there at my Grama's house in Camarillo; but I was actually living in Pasadena and just visiting my Grama that weekend. I came into the family room for breakfast, and my Grama said there had been a news flash of an earthquake in Pasadena. I ate my breakfast and hurried home to see what had happened. It had been around a 5.5, a pretty good jolt - and centered in Sierra Madre, only a few miles from Pasadena.

 

Of course you know the closer you are to a quake, the more intense the jolt. You may still feel a quake strongly from far away, if it's a big one; but the sensation is less of a jolt, and more of a rocking. Back in Pasadena, I drove up my street on my way home and saw lots of brickwork laying on sidewalks outside the buildings down the street from my house. I parked my car and, unsure what I'd find, I walked into my house.

 

Nothing was broken, but dig this: everything on the right side of the room, some furniture and my stereo, had shifted about a foot away from the wall towards the center of the room. Everything on the left side of the room, mostly canvases and big portfolio cases leaning against the wall, had banged against the wall and fallen over. Basically the entire contents of the house had shifted about a foot to the left, but everything was intact.

 

Fast-forward a year or two to 1994, and the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Southern California history, a magnitude 6.7 based in Northridge. Pasadena was about 40 miles east of there. That night my boyfriend and I had been celebrating my birthday at my other Grama's house in Woodland Hills, about 10 miles from Northridge. But we had gone home, back to his place in Eagle Rock, a mountainside town a few miles west of Pasadena.

 

Now, I did mention how proximity affects the type of shockwaves one feels in an earthquake (not very academically, I admit); but the composition of the soil also has an effect. Pasadena is foothill, which is pretty stable material; neither silt nor rock. Some sort of stable composite (if you're a seismologist you are now shaking your head and smacking your forehead as I talk complete rubbish, I'm sure). Eagle Rock is just as it sounds, pretty rocky. Rock makes for quite a jarring sensation during an earthquake, and stuff inside your cliffside house might hop off shelves and break more than would stuff in a house at, say, the beach. But the danger of sand and silt is that it tends to liquify during an earthquake and swallow the foundations of houses built thereupon. This phenomenon accounts for most of the greatest damage during the 7.1 Bay Area earthquake of 1989 (which I was not in).

 

Anyway, the boyfriend and I drifted off to sleep in his home in Eagle Rock, and around 4:20 am the 6.7 quake struck.

 

I remember awakening slowly, becoming more and more aware of a tremendous noise and shaking. I was being pulled by my arm out of bed by my boyfriend, who was from Florida. "It's just an earthquake," I yelled, before I realized for myself, "holy crap, that's one hell of an earthquake..." and jumped out of bed after him.

 

We were both naked, and running towards the front door, which was glass-paneled. I stopped short, my earthquake instincts returning as I was beginning to wake up. You're not supposed to go near windows, which can implode during a quake. The entire front of this house was glass, and in the darkness we were blinded by the headlights and flashers of the car parked in the driveway across the street, as the quake set off its burglar alarm. Sirens and flashing white and yellow lights filled our house as all streetlights went out. All the pipes and heating ducts in the basement shook and crashed, and huge stacks of cd's fell from their cases onto the wood floor in the hallway. All in all, the shaking and crashing noises gave me the impression of standing in the bed of a dumptruck as it drove about 70 miles per hour down a street covered in speedbumps.

 

All this realization and observation occurred over about a 5-second period of time. We were still at the front door and I knew that was the wrong place to be. If the door would even open, we'd be outside naked. If the glass broke, we'd be standing in shards. I grabbed his hand and ran back towards the hallway, stopping at a junction where two doorways met at a 90-degree angle: a stable place in the house.

 

There in the doorways, we stood shaking with fear as we rode out the remaining 30 seconds of the earthquake; and as it wound down, I became aware of an intense sensation of nausea and knelt down. I saw my toenail was partially torn off and bleeding, from jamming it into the wall by the front door. Our cat was crying hysterically from one of the bedrooms. It was now dark and quiet, except for the car alarm and the flashing headlights from across the street. It felt like WWIII.

 

After that there were dozens of aftershocks for several days. The cat lived in a constant state of fear and neurosis. In Northridge, a 3-story apartment building became a 2-story, and all but one tenant of the bottom floor died as they were crushed by the collapsing building. I went there a few days later to see this tomb, and as I looked over the grassy rise up towards the building, tops of windows and door could just be seen underneath second-floor balconies; and debris of all sorts -- bedding, clothes -- was strewn around on the manicured lawn.

 

So now, yes: I panic. The strange and somewhat curious thrill of earthquakes is now panic and fear. Once bitten... twice shy.

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