Our schools practiced earthquake drills regularly. We knew to drop below our desks, facing away from windows with our hands protecting our necks from projectile bits of shattered glass and eyes shut tightly. We knew to look for sturdy support structures that would create pockets of safety. Open spaces that are not below power lines are safety zones. We were versed in what is needed in an earthquake kit and had bags packed with snacks and comfort items to get us through a few days if that’s how long it would take to be picked up by our families. We knew to shut off gas lines and smell for leaks, but honestly I haven’t done that.
A thought: Imagine being the teacher that can’t leave her students to find her child because teachers are unsung heroes in a school crisis. Yikes.
The first earthquake I remember was around 7 in the morning when I was in elementary school in the mid to late 1980’s. I rode a school bus from East Hollywood to school in Brentwood and the driver stopped in the middle of the street near West Hollywood. Residents came out of their homes and stood around us and I thought they were rocking our bus. I had no idea what an earthquake felt like. In the following days, aftershocks would remind me how small I was and that my big problems were not big or problems. This thought would later be a source of peace as I find comfort in ocean waves for the same reason.
During the Northridge quake I was asleep. I didn’t stay asleep. I was a high schooler sleeping in the attic of my Mom’s 1901 Victorian styled home. It has a wood frame that is flexible with cracking plaster where it is not. Her house sits on a hilltop near Chavez Ravine and that earthquake sent waves of energy up the hill and into the house. The shaking rolled through and up. I was terrified. My mom heard my screaming in the absolute dark and feared that I was hanging out of the window by my hands as I often sat on the roof from the windows that opened to the front of the house. Naturally a strong enough earthquake makes a power outage an expected accessory. We sat in the dark and dozed off until the waves of aftershocks reminded us of our powerlessness.
Everything else has been a shake here and there with random destruction in it’s wake. It’s not enough to make me leave the place that has always been home.
When the earth shakes, all you can do is seek safety and ride it out. It’s humbling. It shifts your perspective. It changes who you are and alters relationships in letting you see what the one you love is really made of. How do they handle a crisis? Are they prepared? Will they take their fear and turn it into anger that is directed at you?
Last week I was chatting with a co-worker from another department. He’s tall enough with a great smile and he probably cares about his fitness slightly more than I do. He’s all kinds of beautiful with his bald head and warm tan and constant 5 o’clock shadow that would look lovely with my shade of lipstick smeared all over it. But I work with him and I’m not revisiting those shenanigans. [Obsessive Observations of My Latest Crush Because He Was Hot (and so fun to watch) if you’re curious.] This latest bit of eye candy isn’t a native. He’s from the northeastern tip of our country and can tell you about freezing winters and muggy summers. We were chatting with another California native when he asked about earthquakes and how a native handles them.
We go with it. We don’t panic right away. Not for the most part. Some quakes are terrifying, but the shaking starts slow enough that you can tell when it’s getting bigger. You have time to decide if you should take cover and where to find your safety. You have time to see if you can just look around from where you stand. You look around at the ones who have never had the ground shake below them. I may be amused but I wouldn’t outright laugh. That’s a cruelty I can’t stomach. I tend to look up to hanging lights and chandeliers once the shaking starts. The swaying tells me it’s a rumble from the earth and not a giant truck rolling by. I will pay attention and try to determine what the shaking feels like. Does it shake abruptly like it’s a strike slip fault, or does it come in waves of energy that roll through the earth? The shaking isn’t destructive, it’s the man made parts that fail us. Earthquakes are natural, just not normal, although the earth is normally always in motion. Is it really any wonder that I wanted to be a rock doctor and study geology? It’s not just metamorphic rocks that are sold as precious stones in jewelry stores. I keep fresh batteries in flashlights around the house. I don’t have tools next to the gas meter or water shut off, but I know where to find things if I smell gas or water is flowing out of a broken pipe. There’s a house shut off for water, but there’s also one at street level.
The earth will move. We will be shaken, but we will also be okay. Somehow we’ll learn from it and build safer structures because of the destruction we live through and learn from but mainly we will let the earth do what it will because we really don’t have a choice. Such is life.