Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Big One

I don't think I'm afraid of very many things, but I do fear earthquakes.

It's funny that I grew up in California, but I don't have any memory of being in earthquakes as a child.

My dad has a great story about the big earthquake (7.3) in Tehachapi in 1952. It was right after he and Mom were married. He was working on a ranch that summer, so they lived in a little tiny travel trailer in one of the fields. One night they felt the trailer rocking and Dad went out to chase the cow away that (they assumed) was bumping up against the little trailer. As he put his foot down to the ground, the ground came up and patted his foot. He suddenly realized that the "cow" was actually a big earthquake. According to Mom, he promptly dived back into bed.

I remember two tsunami evacuations. The first one was in 1960, after the 9.5 earthquake in Chile. We were down at the harbor having lunch in the cockpit of our family's sailboat. I had just turned 6 the week before, and my brother was not quite 5. As the water began to get sucked out of the bay, the sailboat suddenly lurched to one side, tipping all of the condiments into our laps. My dad shouted for my mom to get us kids to safety in a hilly area of town, and he took the sailboat out to a deep hole in the bay. He anchored there and stayed overnight on the boat, as it swung back and forth on its anchor with the water rushing in and out of the harbor with the tsunami surges.

The second tsunami evacuation came in 1964, when I was ten, after the 9.2 earthquake in Alaska. This time we were at home in bed (Mom, my brother, me). Dad was already down at the harbor, where he worked as the harbor engineer. Mom got us kids us and wrapped us in blankets because she had to drive the jeep - Dad already had the car down at the harbor. Once again she drove us to a hilly area where we stayed for the night. I had tsunami nightmares off and on for several years after that.

We used to joke about The Big One when I was a teenager in California. There were cartoons about the western half of California falling off into the ocean. It was all just a joke. Earthquakes happened somewhere else, to other people.

A few years after I moved to the Pacific Northwest in the late 70s, geologists figured out that the Cascadia Subduction Zone was ripe for a major subduction earthquake. A few years after that, they figured out that the Portland area is likely to sustain major damage in an earthquake because the fertile Willamette Valley soil is sediment from 15,000-year-old floods. Even really old sediment tends to settle in big earthquakes, shaking buildings and making a mess.

We've had a couple of small earthquakes in the region since I moved here. One was the Spring Break Quake in 1993. We were camped out at the coast, but I happened to be awake at 5:34 and I distinctly heard a distant boom. Something changed. Polly's friend, Patti, was camped with us, and she also heard or felt something.

About 10 years ago there was a small quake during the school day. I was teaching in a ground-floor classroom. I was standing up, teaching, and I didn't feel anything, but my students felt it. Their chairs moved under their bottoms. A few years later there was another small quake, but we were out of town.

This region is ripe for a magnitude-9 earthquake. I live in a  stick-frame house that is 103 years old. I sleep in an upstairs bedroom. If a quake hits at night, will I make it out of the house alive? And if we survive, what will our lives be like?

I look at news and photos from Japan, superstorm Sandy, hurricane Katrina, makes you stop and think. No matter how prepared you try to be, how prepared are you really?

A few years ago I took a short overnight backpacking hike with my grandson, Josh, when he was 8 years old. We camped just beyond High Bridge on the Eagle Creek trail in the Columbia River Gorge. During the night I woke up and had a hard time getting back to sleep. I lay there in our little tent listening to my sweet grandson breathe, and wishing I could get a little more comfortable on my Thermarest pad. Then, for some reason, I started thinking about earthquakes. What if The Big One hit that night?

You know how it is in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. My imagination just took off. There were downed trees all around us from the earthquake. Hmmm...would we be crushed? Dead - end of story. Not dead - now what? We'd have to hike out by climbing out over all those huge trees that would be lying in our way. No doubt the trail would be a mess. I mentally hiked along the trail until I got to...oh, no! High Bridge had collapsed in the earthquake! We were trapped. My cell phone wouldn't work in the narrow gorge. Maybe I could climb to the top of the mountain above us (not likely, by the way). Even if I could somehow get cell reception, what good would that do? Most of the cell towers would be down. No one would be able to come rescue us. How long would our food last? Could we hike out to Wahtum Lake? There was still snow at that elevation...

...and on and on.

It seems silly now. Except this evening I was in the shower, when I had a sudden thought. What if The Big One hit right now? Ack, I'd be naked. I'd have to grab my clothes (which were next to the shower) on my way as I ran down the stairs to escape the collapsing house. But it's November and cold outside! I'd have bare feet? Could I grab my slippers (back in the bedroom), too?

Stop. Breathe. I know that the likelihood of The Big One coming at any particular moment, just because I'm thinking about it, is almost mathematically nil. But still.

I have to admit it. I'm afraid of earthquakes.


Polly @ Helping Little Hands said...

I don't worry about earthquakes nearly so much here. When we lived in the Bay Area, I thought about them every time I drove into San Francisco, just hoping that if we had a big one, it wouldn't happen while I was there because it would be such a huge mess to get back home. We lived in Richmond when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. After watching all that happened there with the people who were not prepared and had no food, I started to worry we'd have a natural disaster and there would be looting. We lived really near a BAD BAD part of town and I was sure those people would come into our neighborhood looking for food...and who would even be able to blame them? I feel MUCH safer now...even if we do live near Mt. St. Helens and the old timers remember what the ash almost did to their crops.

Dorothy said...

What a great post! We all have memories of these kinds of events. When the Spring Break Quake hit we were home in bed. I heard noise like a train coming into the room and then suddenly realized (because things started shaking!) that it was an earthquake. I reacted somewhat like your Dad...I pulled the covers over my head to wait it out!

I did experience an "earthquake" once while showering. It was in a teeny little shower aboard a houseboat. We were tethered to the bank of Lake Shasta and all the guys had gone off on a little exploring trip. Becky was on board and noticed that the line had come loose, which meant the houseboat was drifting. She jumped ashore, grabbed the line and was trying to hang onto the boat while it tried to drift away. Inside the shower, I noticed a lot of shaking and jerking, which forced me to hold onto the shower walls to stay upright. I gotta say, you feel pretty helpless when you are naked and it's an emergency! Luckily the guys came back right away, relieving Becky, and got things tied back up. I didn't know what happened until I was dried and dressed. Poor Becky suffered a horrible back strain because of her heroic efforts!

One last thing. If it makes you feel any safer, Ken always said that the older stick houses hold up quite well in quakes...because they bend and sway with the movement rather than break up. I don't know if it's true or not, but it's a comforting thought!