Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Earthquake! A story I rarely tell...

[From July 2008] Yesterday, the LA area was hit by an earthquake. I haven't experienced one in a long time, and the 5.4 magnitude would seem to be strong enough to scare many, but it wouldn't cause much damage except to old structures and outdated infrastructure. Indeed, except for the items falling off store shelves, the damage I saw on TV was mostly limited to old unreinforced brick walls and the water lines in older areas in town, like City Terrace. I'm not trying to make light of the situation. I'm just glad that nothing catastrophic happened.

Born and raised in California, I have had my share of earth moving experiences. The first big one I felt was the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, which was a 6.6 magnitude jolt. It woke me from bed and many things from my shelf fell to the floor. We called school and good ol' Loyola High School said there would be classes as scheduled, but when I got there I was told to go home as they found cracks all over the old main building and city engineers needed to inspect the building before they'd allow anyone in it. Finally, our tax dollars at work, my dad had said.

SF quake opposite sideI also lived through the big one in San Fransisco. Actually, the epicenter was closer to Santa Cruz and is known as the Loma Prieta Quake. This is closer to where I was at Stanford, and it was humungous. My then-wife had gone the pick up our daughter from daycare when the 7.1 quake struck and she told me that cars parked on the street literally rose and fell in waves. My sister lived in the Divisadero section of San Fransisco, a landfill area created for the 1915 World's Fair. As you probably know, landfill reacts like quicksand in a major earthquake and many of the homes in the area were utterly destroyed. I went to pick up my sister and it looked like a war zone. I remember going with her to an evacuation center at a local elementary school to find out the status of her flat. We walked over the sidewalk that had buckled everywhere, and walked by classrooms in which the elderly apparently in shock were lying in army cots or sitting, eating bologna sandwiches distributed by the Red Cross. My sister received a yellow card, meaning that the status of her building had yet to be determined--this was three days after the quake. Fortunately, her apartment was deemed safe, but it took three weeks until she was finally able to move back in, and even then she had no water and electricity. 

As for me? Well, you sports fans will remember that it was the opening day of the World Series and I was getting ready to watch the first pitch. I had the beer chilled, and got the chips out. And not wanting to have to run to the bathroom between innings, I decided to take a dump right before the game. So there I was, sitting on the can on the second floor of our student housing residence--it was like a mini-faux-townhouse--when the place jumped up and down with a jolt, then started rocking left and right. Not to get overly graphic, but I was only halfway finished and I didn't know what the fuck to do. I heard books falling and dishes crashing to the floor--Shit! (no pun intended) Was that the Doritos?!?. I opened the door to the bathroom and from the throne, I could see the ceiling lamp that hung above the staircase landing swinging like a pendulum in a 90 degree arc. I was in panic mode, trying to think of a course of action--What should I do!--but all I could do was think, Fuck. Is this how I'm gonna die? Taking a shit? They're gonna dig through the rubble and find my body with my pants bunched around my ankles?!? Fuck, what a way to die!

Then it stopped. The walls did not come tumbling down. The floor did not collapse. And I survived with my dignity intact: Ass wiped, pants pulled up. Whew!

FYI: I often embellish my personal stories for "dramatic" (read: humorous) effect but this story is pretty much exactly as I remember it.

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