The anatomy of an earthquake.
I know what your thinking….and you could be wrong! Earthquakes overpower their victims into violent spasms of fear, horror and brief moments of heroism (or cowardice). OK, so if you think this, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, just halfway. Earthquakes, violent ones, don’t do this, but, instead, they set the stage or create conditions so that these base emotions and characteristics are revealed within oneself. Earthquakes remind us just how small and insignificant we can be in this life. When they strike, they viscerally show us that we’re not in control and that control of our lives is really a chimera. Our carefully crafted illusions forcefully disintegrate when the Richter scale breaches 7.0, and the epicenter is a dozen miles away. Now, If this is what you thought, I’d have to agree with you. Our brief experience with the 7.0 ‘Big Lake’ (also called the ‘Anchorage’) Earthquake in the last day of November ’18 exposed some of our deeply hidden fears and confirmed a few of our more base characteristics. Each was unmasked when we acted without forethought. (Big Lakes Earthquake)
Celebration to Disaster
It was Ursula’s birthday party the previous night, these birthdays are always touchy because you don’t know if she’ll end up depressed or elated at the end of it. The following morning I lay in bed, half awake, halfway somewhere else while in a state of postcoital bliss. This birthday day went well and either I finished up that morning with my final gift to her, or her gift to me of gratitude. Either way, I’m a bit a lazy pig these days, so I was still hanging out with the cat in bed at 08:28. At 56, these days seem infrequent, so I felt as though I might as well luxuriate in the memory. Ursula was upstairs reading news and drinking coffee.
At 08:29 there was a heavy knock on the door, that knock didn’t go away. Instead, it reverberated throughout the walls with a depth of resonance of a bass drum. The earthquake was making its entrance into our lives. The bed jerked, then jumped, the noise grew, and the cat flew to who knows where. He’s fat, but he’s quick when he needs to be. My realization wasn’t as immediate as his as I stayed in bed through the initial thumping. As the fog cleared, I realized this was no simple quake. I flopped to the crook of the bed for protection. As the swaying grew in proportions, I reached up to securely hold the 70-pound mirror above me on the wall as it lurched and swung six inches from its base. I know if it fell, and I was still there, it would be ugly. There were a few massive, vicious jolts as the house gyrated and agitated its contents. As I heard the crystal in the china cabinet smashing against the floor upstairs and the vases and pottery and picture frames fiercely thrown asunder, I knew the large mirror would be next in spite of my efforts.
Cacophony of Bumps
Somewhere above and within the cacophony of smashes and bumps and thumps and general roaring of mother nature, I heard Ursula’s quick steps from the kitchen to the hallway above. I heard her moans of fear and whimpering of bad things to come. I could do nothing, I could help in no way. I couldn’t move.
If I let loose the mirror, it would have crashed on my head and shoulders. If I could have fled my position, the house’s pulsating walls would have slammed me into the stairs, or a flying glass picture frame would have sliced it’s way to my bone. Through the jarring action, there was no way to stand, much less walk. I couldn’t make it up the flight. I couldn’t move as our home felt and sounded like it was being torn asunder.
Some of the newspapers say this lasted for 90 seconds other reports said 60. I don’t really remember anything other than it was an eternity. In time the noise subsided, the walls moved less, the bed and floors lost their bumping zeal and a dazed quiet returned to the house; except for the moaning and crying upstairs. The bottles and glasses ceased their high-pitched, explosive shrieking and the shards lay dormant piled on each other. The mirror hung of its own accord above my head.
I flew up the stairs before I could blink to find Ursula. She was crying, she was alive! Fortunately, halfway, I met her coming down. We grabbed ahold of each other and fled back to her side of the crook of the bed; away from the mirror. Quiet was returning, until it didn’t. The USGS later told us that this was when the 5.7 earthquake erupted even closer to us. The shaking resumed, the hard bumps assaulted the walls, the floors rattled, and nature’s drums beat again. There was nothing we could do for our home, our possessions, our cats. There was nothing we could for each other, but hold each other in the little crook in the bed and wait this out to discover what would be left. This time the mirror fell and took out the radiant system below. Anything that was on the verge of falling at the end of the last quake took its opportunity to do so this time around.
The second quake ended. After sufficient delay expecting the third one, we wandered the rooms in a bit of daze. The house was in ‘disarray,’ glass shards, broken earthenware and torn paintings covered the floor. The walls, and shelves, though not entirely bare, had been despoiled and ravaged. The cats were nowhere to be found. But, the roof was still above us, there was no evident structural damage; confirmation of that would not come for hours. We were lucky. We found the cats under the guest bed, they didn’t move from there for the next 12 hours. We had a home, we had each other. But, did we have a neighborhood and a community?
While Ursula surveyed the damage, I dressed and jogged to the neighbors’ in the hopes they didn’t need assistance. Divine providence protected them as well. They were all shaken and stirred but most of their homes only had cosmetic damage as did ours – no apparent significant damage. On the way back to the house I surveyed the frozen lake below – it was covered with wrinkles and cracks as cobwebbed as the back of my aging hand. The severity of the quake was evident around us. I later heard that during the quakes, water erupted between the fissures in the ice like mini geysers along the length and breadth of the lake. But fortunately, there were no fires on the horizon, no smoke,,, but also no lights, no noise, nothing but mother nature catching her breath.
So, how do you recover from a major earthquake? The way you planned ahead of time…or failed to. We had no power, no heat, no internet. But we did have cell phone coverage and used it to contact more distant friends to check on them and advise family we were ok. The generator with the tangle of extension cords was put to use, the heat (a critical need in an Alaskan winter) returned because of the generator and the gas lines that were thankfully unaffected. We had food, we had water, we had friends – we planned adequately. We were going to be alright.
The physical damage to our ‘stuff’ was significant only if you value cosmetic material possessions. I do, a little. Most of the loss was limited to fragile items and a few shelves and cabinets that overturned. The mental damage was more in-depth.
Confusion (about what is happening), Acceptance (that there is nothing one can do to fight it), Resignation (that you’ll have to ride it out and begin to pick up life after its over), Exuberance (at having survived it) and Depletion (once the adrenaline rush fades) are the stages of human emotions during and after an earthquake. There’s a hushed camaraderie between neighbors, friends, and strangers for having undergone a collective crisis. There’s a hushed awe at the power of nature. Then there’s the adrenaline and emotional crash as you retreat back into yourself at the end of exhausting days recovering and making things ‘normal’ again. The sensation is as if you were recovering from a recent arduous deployment or death in the family. It’s emotionally and physically turbulent. After two days of work cleaning up, there’s still more to do and more damage to be discovered. But, it slowly comes back to normal and as you read and see the news of others very much less fortunate, one becomes humbled and grateful. Then, there are the aftershocks. In the first 24 hours there were about 260 aftershocks, a half dozen or so measured above 5.0, quite a few around 4.0. After 24 hours of punch-drunk activity recoiling from every quake, expecting it to be the one that blossoms into the next 7.0, you begin to ignore the 3.0 and 2.0 shocks. After more than 2,500 in the first week alone, they no longer register as you absentmindedly watch the ripples in your water glass dance around the surface.
Relationships are tough to start with. If you’re prone to argue, this experience will heighten the tension. If your inclined to laugh, there’s always plenty of gallows humor to make you smile. If your fearful, the aftershocks provide plenty of fodder for your insecurities. If your concerns for others naturally outweighs your concerns for self, then there are opportunities to demonstrate what balance you’re inclined to favor. Earthquake, mother nature in general, provides us mortal humans with a backdrop rich for revelation.