Not so long ago, I wrote about an earthquake…in a story called Lifeline Echoes:
There is no natural phenomenon which is held by all mankind in greater dread than earthquakes. Our ideas of permanence, solidity and strength are based upon the condition of the earth, as we daily see it; so that when the firm ground shakes under us, there naturally comes over the mind a feeling of abject helplessness. ~New York Times April 9, 1872
The day the earth tried to swallow L.A., Alexandra Wheaton dropped her double chocolate iced mocha in the parking lot. It landed with a splat, pale brown slush sliding off the toe of one white shoe to form a sticky puddle beneath her foot. Cleaning it up made Sandy two minutes late for her job as a dispatcher for Los Angeles City Emergency Services.
Her day was about to become much worse. Moments past eight in the morning, the tectonic plates along the Newport-Inglewood-Rose Canyon fault line started to move with a little more force than the normal sway and push. The seismograph needle in the monitoring station leapt wildly and the machine registered the largest magnitude quake along that fault in greater than forty years.
Millions of dollars spent on equipment upgrades for emergency services over the past year proved no match against the relentless heave of the agitated earth. Radio towers toppled and satellite dishes were knocked out of alignment, creating a system-wide communication blackout until Los Angeles Central Dispatch switched to their ten-year-old backup system. When the earth stopped its initial temper tantrum, the telephone switchboard began to light up with calls from citizens, while the status of each individual emergency response unit was being verified by radio check-in.
In less than ninety seconds, chaos erupted in Central Los Angeles. The nightmare deepened moments later when a ruptured gas line beneath the Convention Center was ignited by the cigarette Marcus Fulton had been smoking in the basement janitorial supply closet.
Sandy couldn’t stop the tremors running along the inner fault lines of her own neural pathways. But she was a professional, so with a voice that only barely trembled, she dispatched Fire Station Number 9 to the L.A. Convention Center.
The first shift after Sandy’s vacation was off to a very rocky start. Before her shift was over, she would learn two important things. First, she was getting the heck out of L.A. Second, it was possible to fall in love with someone, sight unseen, in twenty-three hours and fifty-seven minutes.
Virginia, Summer 2011
I learned two things yesterday, August 23, 2011. First, it’s a lot more pleasant to sit in my office and write about an earthquake than it is to live through one. Second, no amount of research about earthquakes through viewing news reports and conducting interviews can prepare a person for the actual event. It doesn’t even come close. Yesterday’s earthquake in Mineral, Virginia (about 75 miles from where I live) was not the catastrophic quake I described in Lifeline Echoes, a mere 5.8 compared to a 10.0. It definitely wasn’t even close to the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chili, and Japan. It definitely didn’t knock the world off its axis. But it did cause a crack in the Washington Monument and a spire to fall from the National Cathedral. It did rock the Mineral Post Office off its foundation and it buried several cars under bricks. Thankfully, no one died in this place where earthquakes of this magnitude are rare and the people living here are unprepared.
And me? The rumbling ground yesterday scared the words right out of me. A little 5.8 (by some reports 5.9) on the Richter Scale quake made my heart race and pushed the blood through my system with the same grinding thrum the earth beneath me was making. When the house stopped shaking, my own internal quake continued for several hours. I’d like to claim the imagination flew to the countless number of disaster movies about volcanoes and earthquakes and general end-of-the-world fare and made the experience more harrowing. But in truth, I never thought of any of these. It seems one really does experience a deep, visceral, thought-free reaction. No movie images of the ground opening hovered in my conscious. The shuddering earth with the sound of growling grating rock that somehow manages to get inside the head as well as outside spurs the heart to frightening pace, squeezes breath from the lungs, and paralyzes with primal fear. Time slows and is drawn out – what lasted no more than 45 seconds seemed to go on for more like 5 minutes. Things get noticed, like books tumbling from shelves and dogs scrambling into your lap. But the imagination has nothing on the physical reaction that can only come from some primeval switch that gets flicked on when dangers arise.
When the earth moves, humans revert to animal instinct. I reported to friends that I felt “wobbly” for hours after, and I was close enough to the epicenter that I felt the 2.8 and 2.2 aftershocks for sure, which gave me milder versions of the panicky sensation I experienced during the original event. I’d had a nervous sensation about me from early in the morning. My dogs, who are my constant companions, had been even more clingy. And the National Zoo reported that the lemurs had been giving alarm sounds for a full 15 minutes before they felt the earthquake. So when my daughter called to tell me she had an edgy feeling just before she felt anything, I wasn’t surprised. I think humans share a connection with our world in ways we may never understand. But this connection that we share with the Earth also binds us to one another. We send warning calls, we burn up the airwaves and overwhelm the cell towers calling our loved ones to see if they’re okay.
When we go through one of Mother Earth’s hiccups or wheezes, we survive by our connections to one another. On some level, I’ve always known that. After making it through two minor hurricanes in Maryland in recent years, the first thing we did was call family out of state to let them know we were fine, and then we called friends in the area to check on their status, see if they needed anything. I attempted to demonstrate this need for human connection in Lifeline Echoes, with the trapped firefighter and the dispatcher who became his voice lifeline. But as I said earlier, I’d much rather write about it than actually live through it ever again.
Happy reading, all!