Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earthquake memories

Yesterday's earthquake on the east coast brought back memories of the shakers I've experienced in my lifetime.

Washington (State) has had its fair share of rattles over the years.  I was 5 when Mt. St. Helens blew her lid, and I remember the ash dustings we got in Tacoma: they looked like frost and the gardens had a particularly good year as a result of the extra nutrients.  There were plenty of rumbling earthquakes in the months before and after the blast, most small. 

Having grown up in Western WA, I've gone through countless earthquake drills from the time I was in grade school.  My most recent one was just a few months ago at work. 

The biggest earthquake I ever experienced was the Nisqually Earthquake in February 2001.  Nisqually is an area between Tacoma and Olympia, our state capitol, and was the epicenter.  I was living and working in Tacoma, as I still do, though at a different university.

It was a beautiful February morning, and unseasonably warm and sunny.  I had gone to a monthly all-unit meeting in another building across campus, leaving my coat and purse in my office.

The building where we had the meeting was constructed in the 1940s.  It had some funny characteristics to it, one of which was that the terrazzo floors would bounce in certain spots if even the smallest college girl walked past you.  It's a handsome brick building with lots of masonry.

The meeting was over and my co-worker - we'll call him Ted - and I had just left the meeting room.  Ted was, and still is, a tall, athletic man's man.  He's funny and smart, and harbors a deep love for white-water kayaking and mountain biking.

As Ted and I rounded the corner I noticed that the floor was bouncing.  I slowed down and looked around for the wee sorority girl who was making the floor seem so unstable.

No sooner had I stopped in my tracks did Ted squeal "earthquake!".  Being from the northeast and probably never having been an earthquake, real or drilled, Ted freaked the eff out.  He shoved me aside and ran from the building, just like you saw people doing on the news yesterday.  He later told me that once outside, he saw the ground swell and heave like the ocean.  He nearly heaved himself!

I'd been through several earthquakes, though none this strong.  Later on we would find out that it was a 6.8.  As Ted ran away, I walked to the archway that was just 5 feet away and waited out the earthquake.  There was a table nearby but it was right next to a large glass window.  I was safer next to an interior wall anyway. 

The building's restrooms were right next to me.  I chuckled to myself as college students ran out of the bathroom, tugging up their jeans and begging to be told what to do.  "Stay where you are and hold on," I told them.

The shaking went on for some 25-30 seconds, which seems an eternity when you're wondering if the building will fall down around your ears.  It didn't.  Tacoma is on a foundation of granite.  Even though we were 30 miles closer to the epicenter than Seattle, Seattle experienced a great deal of shaking and damage due to its foundation of glacial deposits.

After the shaking subsided I found a phone and tried to call my grandma, who lived about 1.5 miles from my office.  I couldn't get a local line and was quickly shooed outside by security staff anyway.

Do you know how weird it is to see a university's population outside all at once?  You rarely think about how many people are there - students, faculty, and staff - and it's shocking to see everyone together at once.

I had left my coat and purse in my office when going to my meeting.  Facilities would not permit people into the buildings until inspections had occurred: without my purse I was stuck on campus without any way to contact loved ones.  Cell phones weren't as ubiquitous a decade ago as they are now.  Thank goodness the weather was warm.

I'm still terrible about leaving my purse, and even my cell phone, in my office when I leave the building.  It's been a difficult habit to change, though I suppose I should try harder.

When I finally got home later that afternoon, I found my 2 cats unharmed but skittish.  Quite a few items had "walked" to the edges of shelves in my apartment but nothing was broken.  I was very lucky.

It's been on my to-do list ever since to create an earthquake kit.  I think of it each time I hear of one occurring.  I put it off for another time and rationalize that we've got so many jars of food at home that we'd be fine.  But what about the animals?  What about water?  What about our son?

Are you ready for a disaster?  I certainly don't feel prepared.

Here's a website to help us all get started:

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