October 31st, 2007

generic lament

Post-earthquake wrap-up

I live in California, but I live out in the Sierra Nevada foothills, so I got to skip this evening's earthquake.* (The piddly local one. Also missed the giant one in the Pacific, though.)

Sounds like there was no damage (for a 5.6, I'm not surprised), but it did pop kadyg's earthquake cherry. Welcome to California, hon.

It's strange to say it, but my second scariest earthquake -- as a native Californian -- was actually up in Seattle. Back on February 28, 2001, I got woken up from a sound sleep by a fairly decent shaker. This being not-California, though, I simply couldn't process it as an earthquake; there was simply too much cognitive dissonance.

I ended up concluding that Mount Rainier had gone from "dormant" to "volcano," blown its top, and we were about to get pelted with giant falling stones and region-wide evacuation orders. It wasn't until I managed to stagger outside, half-dressed, that I finally accepted it as just a garden-variety temblor.

But the all-time winner for me was the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the one that collapsed the Cypress Structure in the East Bay. I was 12 years old, and for some reason that probably seemed non-stupid at the time, I had joined my (small, private) junior high school's flag football team. We were in the middle of a game on an outdoor field in west Oakland when the quake hit.

One thing non-Bay Area natives should understand: As you get closer to the San Francisco Bay, by and large, you will be on land that has been filled in to expand human-habitable areas. If you're on land that was shore before the builders arrived, no problem -- you can sink foundations into some decent ground. If you're on land that started out as mud dumped into water ... one good shake, and the whole thing turns into Jello. (You can see this effect by looking at the map of "Oakland - North" from this page. Notice how the shaking intensity goes up by two orders of magnitude as you approach the water?)

So, the scene: A bunch of twelve-year-olds running around in a park near the waterfront in Oakland. We're across the street from a 12- to 15-story apartment complex. The quarterback calls for his snap. The two teams start charging each other.

Suddenly, from the deep distance, a low and ominous rumbling. The action stops.

And everyone notices a giant wave of earth -- the ground itself is surging, I shit you not, in a broad wave a foot or two high -- moving toward us from the southwest.

The wave hits the building across the street. Its entire front face -- glass doors leading out onto thin balconies -- shatters into a glittering cascade. Amid the percussion, a symphony of car alarms squeal, and screaming voices swell in chorus.

As one, every single player on the field looks up, horrified, then starts sprinting away from the falling glass to the far sideline.

None of us was injured. The building itself held. But the experience of fighting for footing on ground that was rising and sinking in swells, I'm afraid, permanently set my metric dividing "serious quake" from "eh, just another day in California."

* The linked news story quotes a man named Rod Foo.** As in the variable. I really want a metasyntactic name now.
** Assuming that this wasn't some quick-thinking programmer putting one over on a hurried reporter, anyway.
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