The Thinker

Shake, rattle and roll

I like things stable. One of the reasons I have concerns about retiring on the west coast is because I don’t want to find the ceiling on top of me at three a.m. That could hurt. So I live on the east coast instead where earthquakes are not entirely unknown, but they are so infrequent and mild that when they occur most people don’t even notice. People assume a garbage truck came down the street instead.

It’s ironic that when the magnitude 5.8 earthquake occurred today, I was in my office at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. The USGS of course monitors earthquakes as one of its main missions. For a change, the USGS national headquarters was near the quake’s epicenter, if 72 miles is “near”. The quake’s number on the Richter scale meant it was a significant event, but not enough to cause more than minor damage. Having never noticed an earthquake before, I didn’t know how to compare it. My guess was it was a 4.0.

At first I thought someone was coming down the hall with an unusually large and heavy cart, because the quake’s rumble resembled a cart on wheels. The rumbling kept getting longer and louder. “Are you going to pass already?” I was thinking when the shaking got so noticeable I realized it could not be a cart, or garbage truck or even a cement mixer. It had to be an earthquake. It was enough to get our attention, but not enough for me to feel panic, just concern.

One of the few things I remembered about surviving an earthquake was to stand under a solid structure. My doorframe was as solid and ready a place as I could find. So I stood there and noticed most of my office neighbors were doing the same or wandering the hall.

The whole thing lasted maybe a minute, with twenty seconds or so where the quake seemed to slowly settle down and felt like it might recur. The shaking seemed more horizontal than vertical. Fortunately, nothing fell. The electricity stayed on.

Your would think after an earthquake the USGS of all places would know what to do next, but mostly people stood around wondering what to do. The event, which occurred about 1:53 PM Eastern Time, was one we had never practiced for. We had the occasional fire drill, of course, as well as tornado drills where we went to a designated shelter in place position. Once there was a tornado warning in our neighborhood and we actually moved to our shelter in place. But earthquakes? Since no quake of this magnitude has happened on the east coast since 1944, we had no idea what to do. I suspect that will change.

It took about ten minutes before someone in a position of authority decided we should evacuate the building. I took the elevator. No one warned me not to do so and I did so automatically; it never occurred to me to use the staircase because there was no fire. Fortunately, the elevators were unimpaired. Employees milled around outside for a while, then were allowed back in just to get their stuff. I just went home, fearing some pipe was broken.

Whatever kind of earthquake we got, it was the type that did little damage. My cat was a bit freaked out when I returned home, but a careful inspection of my property determined no problems. Some sirens wailed for a while, traffic was backed up prematurely in spots, but the only impact most of us noticed was that our cell phones could not connect to the network. Instant message and email turned out to be more reliable than phones or text messages. Part of this is due to the Internet’s architecture, which is highly fault tolerant. Way to go, engineers!

My experience at last with an earthquake does not particularly have me rethinking living in an earthquake zone. Earthquakes are one of these natural hazards that you cannot assume will never happen to you, but by living in the right places you can reduce your chances of experiencing them or, if they happen, that they will cause destruction or injury. It is likely that I will never feel another earthquake. In a way we were fortunate. It would not have taken a much more powerful earthquake, or one where the dynamics of motion were different, for it to be a much more painful and expensive accident.

Still, while not overly powerful, the earthquake was still widely felt, reaching from Canada into Northern Florida. I expect the experience in those states was much different than here near the epicenter. Had the quake gone on much longer, I probably would have moved from a concerned to a panicked state instead.


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