If you’ve been watching the news and have gotten past the missing Malaysian airliner and Chris Brown being in jail (give me a freakin’ break, since when is this “news”?) you may have heard that we had a little earthquake here in Los Angeles yesterday.
It made a lot of news for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that it’s been a while since Los Angeles per se has had a significant earthquake. I heard one radio news station saying that it was the biggest one in the city of Los Angeles since the Northridge earthquake of 1994. The italics are important, since there have been plenty of other large (even fatal) earthquakes near Los Angeles in that time, but they’ve all been out in the desert past Palm Springs.
For those of you who don’t know from earthquakes, one of the things you learn about them is how to judge size and distance away from you. In short, if you’re near the epicenter, there’s a lot of shaking, often violent. (This is what you see in the movies.) But if you’re further away, the energy of the earthquake has spread out and damped down, much like the ring of waves surrounding a small stone dropped into a small pool. Literally, the earth is rippling up and down and back and forth like that. But if you’re away from the epicenter you get smaller, less violent, longer wavelength movement.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area (often known as the World Series quake) was something like 400 miles from Los Angeles, yet many people here, myself included, felt it. In my case I was in a 4th floor office in a six-story building, and the mini-blinds started swaying and knocking, bookshelves banging slowly against the walls, the office door rocking back and forth. It felt more like the room was haunted than an earthquake. But it went on for three or four minutes, enough time for me to get on the phone and call home, where they (on solid ground) couldn’t feel it at all. I knew right away that there had been a really, really big earthquake but that it was far, far away.
Similarly, the “twin quakes” that hit out in the desert in 1992 were magnitude 7.3 and magnitude 6.5, with epicenters about 75 miles away from our house. The shaking here was more than enough to get us out of bed and into the hallway, but again, it was a long, slow rolling, so we knew it was something fairly big, but not near.
Yesterday, it was only a magnitude 4.4 shaker — but just eleven miles away as the crow flies. The first movement we had was “jittery” for about a second or two, then a very strong lateral movement. After that we had about eight to ten seconds of shaking back and forth, not terribly violent, but more than enough to let you know there was an earthquake going on, and fairly loud as the house creaked and moaned. Then it quickly faded away and quieted down.
If it’s your first earthquake, that’s a huge wake-up call, and not always a pleasant one. We all take for granted that the earth beneath our feet is immobile and solid. Until you live out here for a few years and you realize that the Universe has been lying to you about that in order to lull you into a false sense of security.
If it’s not your first earthquake, especially if you’ve lived through one of the magnitude 6.7, 6.9, or 7.2 shakers, is to hold on and immediately start wondering if it’s going to stop or if this is just the start. Often in those huge, killer, city destroying quakes, it shakes like that for the first five or ten seconds, and then totally cuts loose and the whole world turns upside down and the house falls down and the city burns and the freeways collapse and a lot of people die and the rest of us have no power or water or gas or phones for days and we’re picking up debris and rebuilding for months and we’re squeezing around closures and detours for years.
So for those first ten seconds or so, you’re really, really anxious about what the next ten seconds will bring.
Yesterday that next ten seconds brought about relief, a quick check of the house, and getting on Twitter and Facebook to tell everyone about it with a little nervous laugh. (Adrenaline will do that.) And then it’s time to start making fun of the local news anchors who were live on the air.
Because that’s the second big reason that yesterday’s relatively small shaker make national headlines. It happened while every single local Los Angeles station was in their morning news. The footage from each of them can be found online, and the late night comedians had a field day. Some are bizarre, some are scary, and at least one (the one I was watching live, KTLA Channel 5) was hilarious.
It was hilarious because of Chris Schauble’s shocked look, the way he held up his hand to cut off co-anchor Megan Henderson, and the way that they both immediately dove under their desk. Freeze frame pictures of Schauble and video of the desk diving went viral. I’ll admit (and so did they, on this morning’s news) some of it was pretty funny.
But here’s what to keep in mind while you’re laughing. If you’ve ever seen a television studio, they’re sitting there with dozens and dozens of large lights just above them out of camera view. When an earthquake hits, if it’s a magnitude 4.4, those lights sway and rock and make really scary rattling noises. If it’s a magnitude 7.4, those heavy, hot, electrified lights are going to drop on their heads in that “next ten seconds” and if they’re still broadcasting live you’ll see them get crushed, killed, and electrocuted.
From before you spend your first day in kindergarten here in earthquake country, you’re taught to get under something solid if you can when the shakers hit. A desk. A table. A chair. A countertop. On the side of the bed or a couch. If the building comes down, and you don’t know if it’s going to or not, but if it does, you want something solid and expendable above you.
We can laugh at the desk diving news anchors, because the only damage that I’ve seen was three or four bottles of hair products that fell off of a shelf in Encino and one cracked window. But next time, they might be the ones to live and be broadcasting the news afterward, while the guys who ignore it and soldier on will be a part of the statistics that the desk divers will be reporting.