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.)