Yesterday, my feet had barely touched the ground when that ground started moving.
I had just gotten back from spending ten days in Alaska, revisiting old haunts and old friends in the most seismically-active state in the union; while there, I didn’t feel the slightest tremor, but almost as soon as I returned to the nation’s capital, the earth shook.
I believe that counts as irony.
I, along with just about everyone else in the metropolitan Washington region, posted an account on Twitter; predictably, it didn’t take long for Californian friends to mock the reaction to what, in the grand scheme of things, was a fairly middling temblor. But for any of my fellow east coast denizens who, 24 hours later, may be feeling slightly embarrassed by west coasters’ assertions that “they wouldn’t even get out of bed” for a 5.8 quake, let me assure you: they’re exaggerating. The Virginia earthquake may not have been an especially grand one – as has been widely reported, California has experienced 35 quakes of a comparable size in the last half-century or so, and Japan has endured 90 aftershocks of magnitude 6.0 or greater since the catastrophic event of March 11 – but Tuesday’s rumble would have been enough to at least catch the attention of even the most hardened earthquake veteran.
I know, because I am one.
During the seven years I lived in Alaska, I came to regard my friends in the Golden State as complete wusses when it came to earthquakes. (Of course, few things please Alaskans more than mocking residents of the Lower 48 – or, as Alaskans call it, “Outside”. Everything’s bigger in Texas? Not when compared to Alaska it isn’t. Texas is so small that if Alaska were cut in half, each segment would still be bigger than that small patch of real estate on the Mexican border. But I digress.) I rolled my eyes whenever a friend in Los Angeles told me about a four point something – or even, I admit now, a five point something. I remember being incredulous when, during a visit to LA, the building I was in was evacuated after what seemed like a decidedly minor quake.
Seeing some of the reactions to our event yesterday, I realize that I was not so much an earthquake snob as an earthquake bore. It’s true that you adapt quickly when living in an earthquake zone: as a rough rule of thumb, I found that something in the region of a 4.0 would generally be enough to wake me up in the night, but not to get out of bed. I remember, on more than one occasion, opening my eyes, waiting to see how bad the shaking would get, and then closing them again once the rumbling stopped.
But of course not all earthquakes are the same, and the magnitude tells only part of the story.
The largest earthquake I experienced was a 7.9 in 2002 – the largest in the United States in the last 45 years or so, and the eighth biggest in US history. (In fact, 10 of the 11 biggest quakes ever recorded in this country have been in Alaska. Suck on that, California.) What I remember most about that event was that it just seemed to go on and on and on.
It was a Sunday, and I was watching football. I was rocking back and forth in my chair, and my first thought as the quake struck was that I had rocked too far back and nearly toppled my chair. Then I felt the unmistakable yet hard-to-describe feeling of the earth moving.
“Hmm,” I thought. “An earthquake.”
I looked out the window and saw the power lines swaying menacingly.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Still an earthquake.”
I glanced up at what I half-jokingly called my “earthquake monitors”: two Christmas ornaments that I hung in the door frame of my bedroom. They were swinging wildly.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Still an earthquake.”
I decided it was time to step outside, where I saw my neighbor, who was exiting his cabin at the same time I was leaving mine. We stood by his Dodge Ram pickup – and watched in disbelief as it rocked back and forth.
The epicenter of that earthquake was a couple hundred miles away, and it felt as if the ground was undergoing a series of mild shudders, one after the other. It was a strange feeling, and a disturbing one, but it didn’t feel especially threatening.
Tuesday’s quake was different.
It took a second or two after it began for me to fully grasp what was happening, largely because that was pretty much the last thing I expected to experience in northern Virginia. But it soon became clear that it was, in fact, an earthquake. After a few seconds of shaking, it kicked up a notch: the bookshelf by my desk knocked back and forth against the wall; my earthquake monitors (which I affixed in the door frame in my Alexandria house, as I had done in my Anchorage cabin, for old time’s sake, never expecting them to be pressed into service) sprang to life; a painting fell off the wall, and papers and a couple of books flung themselves to the floor.
It was far shorter in duration than the Alaska quake of 2002 and of course much smaller; but it felt much more intense than any quake I had experienced before – presumably because it was quite shallow and quite close, as well as because of particular dynamics of the crust here on the east coast.
So while I smiled and shook my head a little at what I thought were at times somewhat overly dramatic responses in DC, I understood it better than I might have done in the past. It actually was a pretty decent quake, and all the more so for a population that, in many cases, had never experienced one before.
But for all those southern Californians who still think we’re being over the top in our reactions to a normal, natural event, I have just one retort, as an Alaskan and as an east coaster:
Just wait until you have to drive in snow. Then it will be our turn to mock.
Photograph of aftermath of 2002 Alaska earthquake, by Peter Haeussler/USGS