Viewpoint: Earthquakes Give No Warning

By Sarah Stockman
Staff Writer

I wasn’t yet born when the Northridge earthquake struck on January 17, 1994, but I grew up constantly reminded of its impact. No plate could be hung up without earthquake putty, and every year at school I had to hide under my desk during the Great California Shake Out.

I knew that “The Big One” was coming. However, I was never fazed by the fact that we were overdue for a massive earthquake because I had never experienced one that large.

Instead, what really scared me were tornadoes, blizzards and hurricanes. Although people usually had warnings about these natural disasters, I couldn’t understand why people would live in places where they occurred.

Then, on November 14, 2016 at 12:02 a.m., I learned exactly why knowing what’s coming is so much better than being in the dark.

I was in my third month of traveling around New Zealand and had been in its capital, Wellington, for a few weeks. Just as I was about to drift off to sleep, my bed started to shake. I mumbled at the cat sharing my bed to stop scratching himself, thinking he was causing the movement. After a few moments, I realized that the cat wasn’t moving and I sat up, confused.

I looked at the cat, he looked at me, and then he dove under the bed as the trembling turned into a slow roll. I jumped out of bed and made my precarious way to the door as I had been trained to do. As the house continued to move under me I stood in the door frame, my body braced, hoping the house wasn’t about to collapse. 

For 90 seconds, the house shook as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake attempted to rip open the earth. And then it was done.

Somehow the house escaped damage, but I didn’t sleep for the remainder of the night. Instead I refreshed the news, watching videos of tsunami waves hitting the beach I had walked on only hours before. The next morning the initial damage reports came in: large swathes of rail lines had been covered by landslides, cutting off access to towns; buildings in Wellington were collapsing and leaking asbestos; the entire seabed of one town was now above water. Aftershocks over 6 on the Richter scale during the following week made the damage worse.

Since then I have a very different opinion of earthquakes. I get concerned when a truck driving by makes the house vibrate or someone’s tapping foot makes my bed shake.

The thing is, there isn’t really anything I can do to protect myself. I can’t drive away or put boards over my windows like they do for hurricane preparation. I can’t hide in the basement, which people do for tornadoes.

The only thing I can do is make sure I have an earthquake kit. I can pack granola bars, first-aid supplies, flashlights and extra phone batteries into two packs: one for my room, one for my car. I can make sure I have at least a gallon of water in each room of the house in case someone gets trapped. I can make sure my house is up to snuff in the earthquake preparedness department.

I urge you to prepare, too.

(The author grew up in Pacific Palisades and graduated in 2016 from Johns Hopkins University.)

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