Monday, December 22, 2003

The Usual Bump and Grind

I didn’t even notice it at first. I was concentrating on work In any case, I have learned to filter out minor motions, since quakeproof buildings are designed to rock gently under the slightest pressure. (This includes people walking heavily through the office.) Then Michele called; her office is on the edge of her building, and she could see the trees swaying and feel the shaking fairly sharply.

Then the second wave hit—long, gentle rolling motions that lasted a long time. The overhead lights swayed.

Then it subsided, and we went back to work.

I checked over lunch, and it seems to have been a 6.5—a big quake—centered on Cambria. That’s down by San Luis Obispo, where I went to the writers’ conference in September 2002. I have friends in that area, so I may be able to provide a firsthand report.

Why am I willing to live in a place where the ground may start moving at any time?

Well, I always liked Philadelphia. And yes, Philly is seismically active, just on a smaller scale. (So far.) I went through several minor quakes there, including the 4.6 centered on Reading. Manhattan has its own fault under the Hudson River. There have been destructive earthquakes in Boston, Charleston, even the peaceful midwest. And given that earthquakes are possible almost anywhere, I’d rather be where the buildings are designed to withstand big shocks.

Then there are the unconsidered hazards of life in the Northeast. I have personally gone through uncountable snow storms (ranging from flurries to full-fledged blizzards), ice storms, hail, sleet, and violent thunderstorms with high winds and downed trees. Plenty of those routine storms were accompanied by a death or two: car accidents, freezing, someone struck by lightning, a heart attack from shoveling, fallen trees crushing cars or houses. I’ve taped windows against hurricanes. I’ve driven roads that were under a couple of feet of water and seen the damage the big floods caused, and I’ve bailed water in a flooded basement. One particularly stormy day, I raced a series of tornadoes down the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike. When I was living in Forest City, we had to take shelter in the cellar from a tornado, and the next day we drove through the devastation at Lake Carey and along 107. Two people died. I’ve survived 105-degree heat waves in city apartments with no air conditioning, although plenty of old people died in the heat. In New Jersey, we watched the local forest-fire risk gauge and hoped the woods wouldn’t burn.

I am not minimizing the shock and horror of those deaths. I am not saying that ice storms are easy or safe. They’re not; they’re among the few things that scare me, and I still remember the fear I felt one winter, when we had two ice storms a week for three months straight. But I know how to handle myself in those situations: how to protect myself from lightning or tornadoes, how to drive in snow or rain, and not to drive in ice.

Here in California, everyone takes certain precautions. No bookcases over the bed, for example. In fact, our bookcases are mostly bolted to the walls. Houses and offices are built to earthquake code. Bridges are retrofitted to handle the shaking.

Do I feel safe? Not absolutely safe, but then I didn’t feel absolutely safe back home, either. Maybe my feelings are warped by having such severe and life-threatening allergies. I could be killed by a stalk of celery, a bee sting, a dish of soba noodles or buckwheat pancakes. Those are all considerably more common than lethal earthquakes.

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