Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
My family has lived in a lot of places over the years, one 5-year stretch which we spent in Southern California.
Southern California is a geographical euphemism for a 230-mile long by 70-mile wide stretch of prime real estate stretching from Santa Barbara to the Mexican Border. It is a beautiful, if painfully expensive place to live.
We learned quickly is that this region is not stable. The earth moves there on a regular basis, an unsettling experience, to say the least.
Now, I’ve been through thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, blizzards, drought, floods, heat waves and cold snaps. I think the only thing left is to be struck by lightning. Knowing this, during a thunderstorm, I find my friends moving away from me with alacrity.
But of all those events, nothing is more unsettling than an earthquake.
We think of the earth beneath our feet as solid and imperturbable. It is, after all, a planet. In addition, while you can take shelter from a storm, an earthquake leaves you no place to hide.
October 1, 1987 dawned bright and lovely in Orange County. We had taken the day off and liberated the kids from school to go to Disneyland. This is something you do to avoid the heavy crowds and long wait lines. We were getting the kids ready to go when it happened.
At first, there was a moment of disquiet, then the house began to shake. It was slow and slight at first. We froze, holding our breath and hoping that this was a small shaker. But the shaking grew more vigorous. Realizing that this one wasn’t going away, we grabbed our kids and headed out the front door. Outside, the trees were trembling and we could hear our fourplex groaning as it swayed back and forth. Car alarms were erupting, and we could hear screams from the neighborhood around us. At its peak, the shaking made it difficult to stand and all of us were feeling nauseous. Then, thankfully, the shaking subsided. Seeing no damage, other than shattered nerves, we went back into the house, grabbed our gear, and headed for Disneyland. Despite the unnerving beginning, we had a great time. The earthquake had done what weather, seasons, and the Super Bowl had failed to do: Chase the crowds away. We pretty much had the park to ourselves that day.
That incident became known as the Whittier Narrows quake, named for the epicenter pretty far to the northeast of us. Initally rated at 7.1 (later downgraded to 5.9), the quake cracked walls, collapsed shelves, and split street surfaces. Two people died. We were lucky.
We were in California in April of this year, and felt another good shaker, this one centered near the U.S.-Mexican border. While it was thrilling, we were quietly thankful to return to the seismically quiet Alleghenies.
It was Wednesday, June 23rd. Lunch was over and the office had settled into the afternoon labors. I was sitting at my desk at 1:41 when I again felt that moment of disquiet. This was followed by a feeling of dizziness which I initially attributed to my allergies. But I noticed that the water in the bottle on my desk was sloshing back and forth. Above my head, the branches of my desk neighbor’s miniature forest were swaying rhythmically. Instantly, I knew what it was.
My conclusion was confirmed by a number of voices raised throughout the office, “Do you feel that?” “Did something hit the building?” “Is this an earthquake???”
My chair began rolling back and forth a few inches as the motion increased. Grabbing the edge of my desk, I held on and waited. After 30 seconds or so, the motion died. Around me, excited conversations erupted. I sat silent for a moment. Where did this come from? I knew that there were fault lines in Pennsylvania, but they lay further to the east, around Lancaster. One of my colleagues called the Penn State Geology Department and was able to report that it was, indeed, an earthquake, centered north of Ottawa, Canada.
I thought briefly about the building, but dismissed any worries. I remembered a conversation with one of the building’s structural engineers, who assured me that the Penn Traffic building, even at 102 years of age, was “way over-engineered.” It would take a very heavy blow indeed to damage this brick-faced tank.
Later on, I went to the USGS webpage, read the details about the quake, and reported my experience, noting that 9 other people had already reported from zip code 15901. But making some phone calls and sending some emails, I was surprised to learn that very few others in the downtown area had felt the temblor. Later on that night, I was even more befuddled when the evening newscasts passed with no mention of the quake. I figured that, 5 stories up, we felt the motion much more acutely than others would have.
Fortunately, having the enthusiastic confirmation of my colleagues, I knew that I hadn’t imagined the event. It was exciting while it lasted, but it also left me with a stark and sobering realization.
Even in an area with no fault lines, never take anything for granted.