Tuesday, April 26, 2005

the trouble with earthquakes

Earthquake damage - bridge
earthquakes are just God's way of turning the world into an amusement park. [Photo credit: martinluff]

last tuesday, i discovered that should another major earthquake strike california, i am woefully unprepared, and there’s no excuse for that kind of smug ignorance. earthquakes are to californians as white tigers are to roy horn, and we like to forget their lethal potential.

my first real experience with the devastating power of earthquakes was the loma prieta quake of 1989, which struck at roughly 5 pm and registered somewhere between a 6.9 and a 7.1 on the richter scale. when the ground started shaking, i was in bed, doing homework; i was learning that homework would be all i ever really did in a bed. my first thought was that an earthmover from the construction site up the street must have somehow wound up with its plow in the side of our house, but when things didn’t stop shuddering i realized it was worse than that. i hopped off of my comforter, unsure of what to do next. dive under the bed? no, the cartoons on tv said not to do that. the desk, get under the desk! something far easier to think than it was to do, since the crawl space beneath my desk was intended to house one’s legs, rather than the entirety of one’s corpus; but as i was deathly afraid of being downgraded to corpse, i jammed myself under there like a bonsai kitten and made do with short, shallow breaths as i felt souvenirs from my childhood flit past my head and audibly crack against the floor. once the ground stopped rolling and i could make my egress, i walked downstairs and saw the remnants of many ceramic and glass figurines i was never allowed to touch now scattered in more directions and abused in more ways than were ever within my power. i take a certain satisfaction in that.

up until then, earthquakes were mainly fun because you knew what to expect from them. the ground would move a little bit, you would hide under your (spacious) desk, the ground would stop moving, you would go back to letting some electronic device read a book for you, or maybe you would go outside and eat some tanbark. i’m sorry if your junior high wasn’t like that.

and then there were the earthquake preparedness drills my family did when i was a kid. i would slink down the dark hallway, grab my sister and father by their ankles, and shake them vigorously while proclaiming, “i’m an earthquake!” then my mother would race out of the kitchen and beat me with a wooden spoon, at which point i would start sobbing and eat the rations out of the emergency kit. i think these drills would have been more helpful if, a, someone had warned my mother that we were doing them, b, they weren’t actually some silly game i liked to play to irritate my family, and c, the “rations” in the “kit” weren’t actually the “ding dongs” in the “cupboard.”

after experiencing an earthquake of such magnitude, however, you worry that every one after it will carry with it similar force. for instance, the day after the loma prieta quake, i was standing at my friend’s door and we were sharing our experiences from the day before. it had been a rough night, not so much because of the aftershocks and the fear of returning to my own bed, but because we had a portable tv and we had spent most of the night watching simon and simon reruns since, obviously, it didn’t get cable. suddenly, an aftershock rolls through, and faster than gerald mcraney could scream for his royalties i was in my friend’s doorway, effectively preventing him from finding any shelter. i do feel bad about this, but looking back, chances are, had the quake been powerful enough, we both would have died, as i’ve learned that you can’t actually trust a doorway to protect you in an earthquake. people claim that in other places leveled by earthquakes, you would see houses reduced to rubble with doorways protuding skyward, and maybe they’re telling the truth, but it seems to me that houses don’t fall straight down, they lean, and there’s nothing to keep a doorway from doing likewise. so he would have died hating me, thinking i had lived, and i would have died thinking, fucking shoddy workmanship on this doorway. and somewhere, a contractor would have said to the families of the deceased, they obviously were standing under the doorways wrong.

the truth is, however, we really don’t know much about how to predict or how to protect ourselves from earthquakes, though we do know what causes them, and the answer to that question is, kittens. they’re so cute, when they purr, the earth purrs back. so remember: every time a kitten purrs, we lose several thousand turkish or chinese villagers. it was a great day for science when we could finally replace the aristotelian “wind” thesis with this far more believable explanation of seismic activity.

for a while, people believed they could use animals as a predictor for earthquakes. for instance, before a massive earthquake struck the chinese city of haicheng in february of 1975, the state evacuated its population, citing, among other harbingers, the strange behavior of animals in the city. the earthquake struck soon after the evacuation and hit 7.5 on the richter scale, destroying the city but resulting in few deaths. by comparison, another earthquake struck china several months later and killed 60,000 people. unfortunately, no credible link has ever been established between animal behavior and earthquakes, nor has anyone been able to dream up any other reliable method for determining where and when an earthquake will strike, and that leaves us with the task of trying to protect ourselves.

not that anyone’s really come up with anything reliable on that front, either. the most popular piece of advice is, duck, cover, and hold, and as it turns out, it's the recommended course of action in many situations, for instance: earthquakes, nuclear or biochemical attacks (though, in the case of an actual biochemical attack, you should also wrap your head tightly in saran wrap, to protect yourself from inhaling anything), assaults from angry ex-lover, or elderly uprisings. the stated objective here is to protect yourself from falling debris, but i think the intention is actually to subdue school children and to make sure that none of them sees the piece of the roof that finally does him or her in. the unfortunate reality is, people have rolled out of bed, onto the floor, and been found alive, while others have ducked, covered, held, and ended up painted across a few square yards of concrete. but if putting your hand across your spine makes you feel better, go right ahead.

the only thing that’s going to really improve your odds of survival is not being anywhere near china. in the loma prieta earthquake, a 7.1, 62 people died. in the northridge quake of 1992, measuring 6.9, 57 people died. whereas, in bachu, china, a 6.4 earthquake killed 261 people in 2003, and a 7.4 earthquake near izmit, turkey killed 18,000 people in 1999. you want to protect yourself from an earthquake? be in the united states when it happens.

unfortunately, the danger isn’t over once the ground stops moving. according to the usgs website, in order to meet the challenges of the days ahead, one should “[l]earn to fight fires, to rescue people trapped under debris, to provide first aid, to find help for dire emergencies, and to assist others, especially the elderly, immobile, or handicapped.” first, i doubt telling untrained civilians to fight fires is such a great idea. and besides, in some parts of this country, you tell people to fight fires, the next thing you know, they’re putting books on them. besides, it sounds like a lot of work. so does assisting the immobile, unless you’re my father. my father’s brand of assistance would be to tell them that if they were hungry enough, they’d move just fine, and he’d be content in the knowledge that he’d helped them by ignoring them far more than he could of by getting them out from underneath the family room.

isn’t there a disaster for lazy people? something like an ambush by puppies or a sudden pie overage?

“where did they all come from?”
“i don’t know, jane, but if there’s one thing i do know, it’s this: if we can’t eat all of these pies in the next 24 hours, well, god help us all, jane, god help us all.”
“floyd, look out! under the pies! it’s an ambush!
“oh god, they’re all over me!”
“aww, look how cute you look! it’s just darling! shoot, was the camera underneath the strawberry-rhubarb or the pineapple cream?”
“honey, they’re subduing me with their jovial affection and unquestioning loyalty!

get the shotgun!

last tuesday, a minor earthquake struck san diego, rousing many from slumber and providing me with the perfect opportunity to put my earthquake preparedness to the test, and i failed miserably. becoming aware of the rolling earth, i flung the covers off and leapt from bed in one fluid motion, landing square on my feet and dropping into a fighting stance, laughable because not only can you not beat up an earthquake, but also because i wouldn’t be able to fight my way out of a daycare center. i’ve seen amputees who look more threatening, though, to be fair, they were pirate captains.

once the shaking stopped, i left my room and tiptoed down the hall to check on the dog. since our dog is afraid of, in no particular order, rain, loud noises, gardeners, partially opened doors, the heater, the dryer, the ironing board, hoses, gingerale, and backpacks on children, i guess i expected him to be in hiding, or, failing that, i figured that he, mimicking those animals that escaped harm from the tsunami last december, would be working on a small water craft and packing essential survival tools such as a flashlight and matches along with enough food for him to reach the central united states (i wasn’t going to tell him that he couldn’t get there by boat; that seemed to me to be pointlessly cruel). neither turned out to be the case. he was resting comfortably on a throw rug, looking at me as if to say, “did you feel that? that was my stomach rumbling, bitch! now get me some food!”

i put my hand out to him, mainly to show him i had nothing to eat, when suddenly my mother burst out from the kitchen with a box of ho hos in her hand, saw the dog, and, confused, asked, “where’s your father?” but before i, panicked, could ask, “where’s the ding dongs?” my father emerged from the darkness of the hallway, broadsided me with a wooden spoon, crammed a ho ho in his mouth, and, spewing black flakes of cake from his lips, exclaimed, “i’ll show you an earthquake!”

left with no recourse, i ran back to my room, cheeks wet and ruddy with tears, and tried in vain for an hour to find simon and simon rerurns on tv.

i settled for major dad.

it was a long two hours before work.


denise said...

i hope fame dosent change you:)


the train said...

i'm already too famous as it is. there are some parts of my house where i can't not get recognized.

Travis said...

You're hysterically funny. Grats on the great post!!


the train said...

travis, you just made my week. thank you so much for continuing to visit my site.

Travis said...

It's my pleasure. You're a very good writer. :)


zoe said...

Another much-needed laugh. I miss earthquakes. I actually enjoyed them. I mean, except for the strong possibility of getting crushed, they're really fun. And I am so tired of midwesterners telling me how stupid I am (was) for living in fault-line land, when there are around 50 people a year killed as a result of winter weather in the US and it skyrockets to the hundreds during bad storms. Earthquakes in the US, as you say, are relatively safe.