Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Extra Thick Shakes

When I was a kid I was amazed and astounded at San Franciscans. How smart was it to live in a city between major fault lines and where there is a 63 percent chance of a major quake in the next 30 years? Now I'm older, I choose to live in Los Angeles, which has a 67 percent chance of the same. Yes, I amaze and astound myself.

Yesterday was my most prolific earthquake experience so far. For those that have a few minutes here’s my account of those few seconds.

Little shakes are not uncommon in Los Angeles (especialy with kiddy meals), but today’s earthquake was a more substantial 5.4, and the epicenter (I’ve always wanted to go to a gig at the epicenter) was about 30 miles away from downtown where I work.

People talk about time slowing down in crisis situations. My theory is that it’s because you think faster than you can move (this is true even for Superman). For the few seconds the quake lasted I had an agile thought process that went through dozens of questions, scenarios and possible ways to react, but in the same amount of time there was room for only one action.

Big trucks shake vibrate my building so frequently it doesn’t really register. Luckily my subconscious, normally content to sit quietly and stay out of the limelight, keeps track of the mundane and raises the alarm when the normal becomes abnormal. Like a streaker in your office, you subconscious has the ability to make you stop whatever you are doing and demand you attend to what’s out of place.

My subconscious caught my attention, something was not normal. This is the point in any crisis where awareness is suddenly heightened. Your thoughts come more quickly and you stop typing memos and focus on what is out of place in the environment around you. The building was vibrating, and it was lasting longer than a truck would cause. You ask yourself questions: Is it a really, really big truck? An ATAT Walker coming down the street? Did something hit the building (I didn’t hear screeching tires)? Or, I asked, finally arriving at the reality I hoped to avoid, “is this an earthquake?” In the the time it takes to go through the process of realizing it is an earthquake its arrived.

Just as I discarded all the other possibilities the entire building lurched. Up or down, left to right? You don’t know which way it’s moving any more than a leaf knows which way it’s being blown; you just know the building moved suddenly and you were left to catch up with it; like jerking forward and back when you suddenly slam on the brakes of a car. So the question adjusts to “how big will it be?” the answer is, “no one knows, idiot,” so I quickly progressed to “should I get under the desk, stand under the door frame, leave the building, or run naked down the corridor like I’ve always wanted in case it’s my last chance?”

This last of course would really confuse people’s already overactive subconsciousness, “of course I froze officer, there was an earthquake and a streaker...”

I had just enough time to push my chair away from my desk to prepare for a heroic dive under it, when the shaking stopped. “Was that a foreshock to something bigger?” There was a prolonged creaking from somewhere and one of the office doors swung gently on its hinges for a few moments, but that was it.

While I’m sure everyone had a different experience, I think everyone asks themselves questions. Parents wonder about their kids. Off duty firemen wonder if they will have to go in. Earthquake experts wonder “is it an L wave or a R wave?” historians ask “will be similar to the 6.6 that happened on this day in Nepal back in ’95?”

The biggest aftershock was the avalanche of news media coverage that went over all ten facts about the quake ad nauseum. No one was hurt, there was no warning, 5.4, some books fell off a shelf. Without any major damage or injury they quickly started going on about The Big One and how it is sure to happen in the next 30 years. Something they are sure to not mention again until it happens, or there is another non-fatal shake.

It was though, a valuable experience. That earthquakes come with no warning is known, but until you experience that you don’t realize the implications. I know for myself that there is literally time to get under a desk and nothing else. There’s no heroic picking up a kid and running to safety, definitely no chance to get into a shelter or even dress down ready to streak. In the time it takes you to walk ten paces it’s done and over. In ten paces you are either back to typing memos or in a pile of rubble.