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Friday, March 11, 2011


A few weeks ago, after the New Zealand earthquake, I wrote a post about earthquakes but didn't finish it. Now I will, with more to say.

Having lived my entire life in the Southeastern U.S., I'm familiar with the natural hazards of tornadoes and hurricanes. Earthquakes, on the other hand, are not frequent here -- although there have been major quakes along the New Madrid fault and in the vicinity of Charleston, S.C.

I've had only two experiences with earthquakes. The first was in 1994. I had left the Raleigh-Durham airport at sunrise to attend an afternoon meeting in Orange County, Calif. I changed planes at DFW. Once airborne the pilot informed us that there had been a major earthquake in Southern California and that it wasn't clear whether any area airports would be open upon our arrival.

It turned out that LAX did reopen. We went to our meeting, in the midst of which there was an aftershock. The locals instinctively dove under the conference table in the room. We out-of-towners didn't react so quickly. Fortunately the aftershock was minor and it passed quicky with no damage.

That evening, I was having a beer at a large hotel bar of solid hardwood. The TV was tuned to a local station that had a real-time seismograph crawling on the bottom of the screen. I noticed that if I positioned my head just so, I could see the reflection of a bright ceiling light on the top of my beer. The reflection would occasionally jiggle. After a while I noticed that the jiggles in the beer were synchronized with the seismograph on the TV. In other words, I had my own liquid seimsmograph in front of me. It was unsettling.

My other experience was in Tokyo long ago. A friend and I were walking through a large shopping center when I felt pushed hard to the side, as though a big person had run into me. I nearly lost my balance. First, it dawned on me that in Tokyo there are no people big enough to knock me down by accident. Second, I noticed people diving for cover. The Tokyo quake turned out to be a 5.7, which didn't even get the locals excited although it did make the news.

In 2006 we took a vacation driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco north to Port Angeles, Wash. One of the highlights was Crescent City, Calif., a great little town. It suffered enormous damage from a tsunami in 1964. The city had a terrific history museum with many artifacts. Initial reports today indicate that a tsunami of six to eight feet hit Crescent City again, with at least one fatality.

So, even as a southeasterner who has never experienced a catatrosphic earthquake, I have a little knowledge of what they're about. Unlike a tornado or a hurricane, you don't know when it's coming and you don't know how long it will last or when it's really over.