WASHINGTON, AUGUST 23 – It felt like a truck had hit the building really hard, and I waited for an explosion or the smell of gas or at least Anderson Cooper to show up and interview me.
No alarms sounded, no lights went off yesterday, but that must have been one helluva truck, because everyone on our floor was in the hallway or going down the stair case, even with the cause unknown.
So we did the only responsible thing in the middle of a work day on the east coast, where earthquakes rarely strike (but could this have been a replay of 9/11?) and joined them.
Holy San Andreas! It really was an earthquake! Outside the sidewalks as far as you could see in all directions were crowded with hundreds of people – on cell phones, of course. This being Washington they were undoubtedly secure phones, issued to people high enough clearance to be talking to the FBI, CIA, NSA, and of course, The Vineyard.
"Thank you, Sir, I'm fine, yes, I appreciate your concern ... and please give our regards to Michelle and the girls."
I can tell you that my hands were shaking, because the truth is, you never know. If it was some nut getting a head start on 9/11 there could be problems we couldn’t see. Then a colleague got a call that it was a confirmed earthquake, and a stranger saw a newsflash that it was rated as a 5.8 on the Richter scale.
That put it in the realm of the potentially serious. Would the cornice of a building drop off on someone's head? Would traffic lights stop functioning so cars would crash into each other? Broken glass? Looting? What about the bridges over the Potomac?
Being a former reporter, and starting to feel the adrenaline rush of a breaking news story, and knowing the decompensating benefits of frivolity when faced with enormous pressure, I started making up jokes right away:
“Michelle Bachmann yesterday blamed President Obama for the jobs-killing earthquake ...
“President Obama issued a request for both tectonic plates to find common ground …
“No one noticed”
“Both Houses of Congress Adjourn for a Year to Assess Damage”
I lived through the 1971 Sylmar, California quake. That was a frightening, scream-your-guts-out moment. It struck at 6:01 am on Feb. 9, and measured 6.6 on the Richter scale. It seemed to last forever, but initially it was less than a minute (not counting aftershocks). In those seconds the walls of my old second-story L.A. apartment shook violently. Books flew off the walls and plates came out of the cupboards. Was there an explosion beneath me? Had a wrecking ball picked the wrong building? Was some wild animal crashing about underfoot? I raced for a doorframe (they train you for this stuff in L.A.) and then in my pjs and bathrobe ran out into the street, where everyone else was.
Mere numbers don’t convey power here. A blog from the University of Nevada at Reno states that a 5.5 quake is equal to 80,000 tons of TNT, and a 6.5 quake has the power of 5 million tons of TNT. Factors that go into assessing damage, or potential damage, include distance from the epicenter, duration of the quake, whether its movement is up-and-down or side-to-side, condition of the buildings it impacts, conditions of the ground, etc.
Sixty-five people died almost instantly in the Sylmar quake, either in a VA hospital in Sylmar, about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles, or downtown, when an old brick building just collapsed. Freeways buckled, like crumpled paper. Hindsight is always perfect for these things, but at the moment you don't know what the hell is going on. (There’s a recreation of that event, using contemporary footage, on YouTube. It’s overly dramatic, kind of Jack Webb Dragnet style, but the images brought back a lot of memories.)
I was also in a number of quakes when I worked as an assistant city editor at the San Diego Union in the late 1980’s. One I remember in particular struck in the middle of the day. The Union-Tribune building had been constructed with state-of-the-art technology designed to absorb the shock of a quake, rather than let the quake shake the place until it tumbled. The strategy used pillars dug deep into the sandy soil of Mission Valley; the pillars then rose through the building. I was at my desk when the shaking started. The rumbling was loud and violent enough with a side-to-side motion to make you wonder whether this was The Big One and how did you get out of there?
But as I watched, the square pillars throughout the newsroom started slowly turning, absorbing the power of the quake. They kept slowly turning as long as the quake kept rumbling, and when the quake stopped so did they. Only a picture frame on the pillar adjacent to my desk was knocked out of line. Who knew.
In Greek mythology an earthquake is what we call the crashing sounds and violent action made by the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man creature, as it struggles to free itself from the maze below the palace of King Minos of Crete. The Minotaur smashes into walls, bellows at the ceiling, rumbles from room to room, demolishes doorways. Once aroused it cannot be stopped, until for some reason it does stop, until the next time.
In every earthquake I've been through, I've never failed to think of that.
Bob is president of NPF and takes earthquakes very seriously.
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