Millions of people may go through their entire lives and never feel an earthquake, and some languages may never develop a word for one. But earthquakes must surely head the list of natural phenomena which create a common bond among completely different cultures: Unangan/Aleut Indians of Alaska, Moroccan businessmen, and Japanese schoolchildren, for example. No other natural events are as disastrous over so large an area in so short a time. Earthquakes, like the rain, befall rich and poor, young and old, and without warning. Living most of my life in an earthquake-prone area has given me a reverence for them beyond fear and an obsession beyond curiosity. Earthquakes are as much a part of my southern-Californian life as breakfast. When I don’t have it regularly, I miss it.
Yesterday I saw a man sitting at the counter of my favorite breakfast café wearing a blue T-shirt that read “Stop Plate Tectonics” in bold yellow letters. The futility of that idea put me into hysterics. Then it alarmed me. I rushed to the nearest library to find out if there was ever any possibility of the ground ceasing movement. I would have been willing to single-handedly get it going again by jumping up and down on my kitchen floor.
The earthquake I will feel in five minutes is probably a blind thrust fault slip located seven miles beneath my kitchen floor. I can’t feel it, but my cats can. The neighborhood pets go insane in anticipation, not because they have a sixth sense, but because, the way I see it, their center of gravity is lower to the ground. They become the living seismograph machines that most of us don’t realize we own. The 5.9 Whittier quake is a prime example of that. At 7:37 AM on October 1, 1987, my mother was cooking breakfast and listening to her two cats race across the shake roof of her house. After five full minutes of this, she almost thought that they had shaken the house enough to make her sunny-side-up eggs flip out of the pan and onto the floor, which started jerking beneath her feet at 7:42 AM. A friend of mine, who lives four miles away, later told me that he had been thrown completely off his front steps when the quake hit, and his dog had been tearing from one end of his yard to the other, barking maniacally for several minutes beforehand. I had been driving when the quake hit, which was another experience altogether.
In southern California we have different names to describe different types of earthquakes, just as the Inuit Indians have different names for the different types of snow they encounter. That Whittier quake was a slammer. The Sylmar quake of 1971 was a swayer. We have rollers and waves and shakers and everyone feels them differently depending on where they are and what they are doing. Even all the smaller earthquakes that we don’t name still exhibit the different characteristics of the bigger ones.
The Big One.
The people of the United States (and other interested countries) have been waiting for the Big One to hit California so they could watch it break off into the ocean since before my parents were born. Frankly, I’d love to feel that quake. The thought that some invisible force could shove me off my front porch, maybe, if I’m lucky, all the way down my driveway, thrills me to no end.
Hollywood has, of course, attempted to imitate the Big One. An 8.3 earthquake, scheduled to hit Universal Studios every six minutes, is the latest catastrophe in a park where visitors survive floods, are attacked by Jaws and King Kong, and part the waters of the Red Sea every hour on the hour. During the sixty-second quake, which takes place on the set of Downtown Los Angeles, the tour bus is tipped twenty degrees to the side, the street and sidewalks split to form a crevasse into which an abandoned car drives, waterlines explode, and an ambulance catches on fire.
I think the designers may have underestimated an 8.3. The Richter scale is a measurement device that many people erroneously assume is just a scale of ten. It actually is a scale of ten thousand, and the space between what some think is just one-tenth of a point is really one hundred points. In reality, an 8.3 would be much stronger than the Hollywood version. In reality, no earthquake has ever been assigned a magnitude higher than 9.5 (Chile, 1960). But the Big One is coming.
My whole life has been one long anticipation for the Big One. Schools in southern California have earthquake drills in which students are instructed to crawl under their desks and fold their hands behind their necks in a crouched position. I was six days old when the 6.6 Sylmar quake hit. Of course I don’t remember it, but I’m sure that’s what threw me into being an earthquake enthusiast. The first one I do remember was approximately a 4-pointer, and it was magnificent. I still remember, at age four, the floor rumbling and shifting beneath my bare feet and the joy that came with the knowledge that I wasn’t doing it. No human could have possibly been doing it. The near-rabid cat was clawing the couch as I reveled in the ecstasy accompanying that momentary loss of control. My glass of apple juice on the kitchen table tipped over and I squealed with delight. To this day, I always keep a small glass of water on my nightstand for that reason. Just in case.
*revised from an original essay written in 1993