Earthquakes

Earthquakes have a note. Low in pitch, but a note nonetheless. An onimous hum, or a growl, as the shaker finds the resonant frequency of the shaken. It’s a note which is interspersed with percussion hits, as plates clatter onto the floor or pictures bounce off their hooks, but always there in the background.

The first time I felt an earthquake, I thought it was thunder. Then a plane passing low overhead. You get a split-second warning you see; the sound of buildings shaking some distance away. But before you’ve had chance to resolve in your head what the sound is, it’s already there – the sound has become the things around you, dancing to an invisible tune as they bounce and shake. No longer a sound but a movement. And in a big city, it’s an awesome roar of thousands of pieces of concrete flexing, and millions of windows, doors and letterboxes rattling in concert.

Earthquakes are truly frightening, and they’re not the sort of frightening that reduces with exposure. I’ve experienced two and I’m more scared of them now then I was before the first one. It’s partly the scale of them which takes you so completely by surprise. We’re used to physical dangers being of a manageable, or at least visible, size. You can see a fire coming, and you can avoid an out of control lorry. Even tornados and hurricanes can be forecast and dodged, and have a limited reach. But you can’t easily imagine two tectonic plates, each thousands of miles long, moving against one another dozens of miles underground. The danger is not confined to ‘over-there’ or ‘in these few square miles’. It’s a danger which suddenly, immediately, surrounds you on all sides – the whole surface of the earth wherever you are at the time is no longer the ultimate guarantor of stability; the anchor to which we attach our houses and onto which we step, reassured, after being at sea. It stops providing this service and instead decides to try to shrug off the things we have attached to it, bored of their erstwhile fixedness. Your whole house suddenly becomes a ship in a violent storm, or a train going over a track so bumpy that it might be thrown off. The closest analogy is perhaps an aircraft in turbulence, but imagine the plane is on the ground and stationary at the time.

But the strange thing is that you don’t really see the earth move. In the same way that you only see the moving tree in the strong wind, rather than the wind itself, you only see the secondary consequences of the shaking earth. It’s like watching a poltergeist at work – making pictures swing around on the wall, pulling the books off the shelves. All your posessions and furnishings suddenly become part of an orchestra of vibration and sound, defying instructions to stay in the places where you left them. It feels as though the earthquake has crept in through an open window and started smashing up your stuff. And you blame your possessions for making the noise, and for hurling themselves onto the floor and smashing. Or you feel the same way you would if you dropped them – as though it’s your fault that they have broken.

I’d never given much thought to how to react in an earthquake. All I know is that as soon as it started, I found myself running into our children’s bedroom clutching my duvet, and then throwing it over us all. “Daddy has a worried face” declared our 4 year old. No kidding. The second time I was on my own, so I just stayed in bed and covered myself with the duvet. Being under a duvet is good for earthquakes as well as monsters, it turns out. It’s very hard to judge how long they last, because you spend the whole time wondering how much worse they’re going to get. Will the roar grow deafening, and crack the house from top to bottom? Will we be buried in rubble like on the news? Will the ground itself open up and swallow us all whole? Once the earth itself starts misbehaving, anything suddenly looks possible.

Then there are the aftershocks…so many aftershocks. And each one provokes the same fear that it’s not an aftershock, but another big one. And after a while it doesn’t even take the aftershock to trigger you – a real approaching lorry, or a bona fide plane, will do the trick and have you jumping to your feet, or covering yourself with your duvet. It’s an insidious, nagging fear that can keep you awake at night.

But my least favourite thing about earthquakes is knowing that if it had happened at a different time, you or your loved ones would have been killed. After my first ‘quake, I counted about 20 places on my usual walk to work where huge amounts of rubble had falled onto the pavement; enough to bury me a hundred times. And the outdoor cafe where we sat in the summer with friends had been crushed violently by a toppling balustrade. It’s horrible, seeing familiar places suddenly transformed into death-traps, knowing that you wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it if you had been sitting there at the time. You feel like an idiot for ever thinking it could have been safe. Because what can you do, really? If you live somewhere there are earthquakes, everywhere is dangerous. If you’re indoors, the building your in might collapse, or a wardrobe fall onto you. If you’re outdoors, in a city, anything above you could suddenly be on top of you. You can’t live your life in the middle of a field. It feels ridiculous to even think about it normally – can you imagine saying to your friends “Let’s not sit at this table – it’s right under that balcony and if there’s an earthquake we’ll be crushed instantly”. And since nobody can predict when they will come, it’s a perennial threat. Even the aftermath of a big quake is no guarantee of safety – just ask Croatia, who had two big ones 9 months apart, after a 140 year seismic silence. A threat which you can’t avoid – entirely random and indiscriminate, killing the worshipper in the church with a falling statue and the gambler in the casino with a toppling slot-machine.

Horrible, nerve-shattering. Quite exciting too, admittedly.

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