Witness to Terror: The Great East Coast Quake of ’11

Pre-post update: At 11:37 p.m. PDT, just as I was about to post this, we had a little five-second earthquake I could feel in Berkeley. Amazing — I felt shakes on both coasts today.

Update 11:52 p.m.: The U.S. Geological Survey says this evening’s quake was a 3.6-magnitude shake centered in the hills about 10 miles south of where we live. Translation: It was a mild event. But the Twitter reaction–the locals are falling all over themselves to report their experience–sort of proves the point of how adrenaline-producing this is even for folks who live astride dangerous earthquake faults.

Original post: I was at the airport in Newark early this afternoon, tending to a tuna fish sandwich in Terminal C and contemplating my next social media communique, when a gentle but pronounced shaking started. It went on for about 10 seconds or so and got stronger. I looked at a guy sitting near me who didn’t seem to have registered anything unusual. “I’m from California,” I said, “and out there we’d think this is an earthquake.” He looked up, but didn’t say anything. Meantime, the shaking got still more intense–by now, I knew that this wasn’t a matter of a piece of heavy equipment doing something outside the terminal. The flat-screen TV mounted near the gate started to rattle. A group of people sitting nearby started to ask, “Is this an earthquake?” I did in fact send out a Twitter message as the shaking subsided:

At Newark airport, I could swear we just had an here in Terminal C.

OK, I concede I wasn’t really selling the story of the century there. But the shaking continued for about 10 seconds or so even after I sent the message; I would guess that I felt some movement for a full 60 seconds. Allowing for how easy it is to overestimate the duration of a temblor, I’d say now “more than 30 seconds.” In either case, that was longer than any quake I’d felt here in California since April 1984, when there was a a 6-point-plus earthquake down near Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County. I remember that quake as having last a good 45 seconds. (For comparison’s sake, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which was a 7.0 event, lasted 17 seconds; the 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan last March is said to have lasted six minutes).

I didn’t see or hear any real alarm in the terminal–just excitement. Afterward, I heard many people discussing it or describing it during cellphone calls. In other words, It was a lot like the California earthquakes I’ve gotten to know since arriving here in the mid-1970s. (On Facebook, my friend Pete posted a piece from The New York Times on how the seismically-tough West Coast scoffed at the East Coast’s reaction to its less than devastating quake. Don’t buy that line at all: people here jump up and down everytime the earth gives a little shudder, and the news people here practically wet themselves every time we have a quake.)

Late-Shaking News

A little reminder of where we live: we had a 5.6 magnitude earthquake this evening, centered about 40 miles or so south of us. I was sitting in my office with my laptop (where else?), trying to do a simple project for Kate. First there was a rumble as the older, front portion of our house started to shake; then the back, which unlike the front is built on a slab, started to shake, too; and things kept rattling, the dog started barking, and I heard Kate, on the phone with Thom up in shake-free Eugene, exclaiming about the experience. In all, the episode lasted about 15 seconds.

I think about earthquakes, for which we and most of our fellow citizens are probably woefully underprepared, pretty often. Several times I’ve awakened to a loud shaking in the house, so sometimes I wonder as I fall asleep whether I’ll be jolted awake in the night. In waking hours, they’re pretty far from my mind. But I always have the same thought as the realization dawns we’re having a quake: How bad will this be?

Tonight: 15 seconds is plenty long to start wondering whether this is more than the hills up yonder having a little stretch. The biggest recent quake that most people outside the Bay Area have heard of, the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 17, 1989, lasted 17 seconds. The longest I’ve ever felt was one that woke me up just after noon one day in April 1984. The epicenter was a good 60 miles away, and the magnitude was a not-devastating-sounding 6.0 or so. But it lasted for about 40 seconds and unnervingly seemed to get stronger as it continued. For a nightmarish comparison, the earthquake that hit Mexico’s western coast in September 1985 and triggered building collapses in Mexico City (about 220 miles from the epicenter) is said to have lasted three minutes. That’s long enough to start believing the shaking will never stop, long enough to make you permanently lose your faith that the ground’s an essentially stable, solid thing.

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Today’s Quake


Another one, at 9:21 a.m. (nine minutes ago as I write this). It was just a little shake; the earthquake authorities peg it as a 3.5, in just about the same place as the other two we’ve had since Wednesday evening–near the Claremont Hotel (I wonder how the shaking felt in that rambling old edifice).

You don’t know when an earthquake is coming. You know they can be devastating, so they’re always in the back of your mind. Even if you go for months or years without feeling one, you know what it is as soon as it strikes. And especially if you haven’t felt one for awhile, three in less than three days makes you a little nervous.

Prepared? What’s that?

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