Here in San Francisco there was a whole lotta shakin’ going at 5:33 this morning as a magnitude 4.0 earthquake woke everybody up. I had just gotten up and was preparing to go to the gym when it hit. There are many forms of earthquakes, and this one was a jolter; that is, you feel an intense jolt underneath you and then everything shakes. This one was brief, and the shaking only lasted seconds. Most importantly, no injuries or significant damage were reported.

We here in the Bay Area often treat such seismic events with a certain nonchalance (and I’ve felt many in my 20 years in SF), and we consider a 4.0 as something minor. But no matter how many you’ve been through, there is still something scary about them, especially when they come at night. They hit without any advanced warning, and when they’re over you’re left a little shaken (every pun intended).

To the uninitiated, let me follow-up up on my “many forms of earthquakes” comment I made earlier. Most of them, like this morning’s, are jolters, strong punches followed by intense shaking. But some are rollers. You actually feel those coming. The earth pitches and rolls until it’s right underneath and then everything shakes and shudders (houseplants actually sway violently back and forth as if they are being whipped by a strong wind), and then you feel it roll away. You can actually hear some of those as they approach, a low, guttural rumble that gets steadily louder the closer it gets, which makes them even freakier. Those are the scariest, since they are sustained, and everything shakes for what seems like a long time.

Part of the fear of any earthquake, no matter the magnitude, is that you don’t know if it’s an isolated event, or the precursor to something larger, something stronger. There are always those minutes of suspense when you actually feel nervous anticipation of what may follow. This morning’s was followed by a 2.0 aftershock, but those are so light you barely feel them.

But no matter how experienced you are, or how quickly and easily you shrug them off, thoughts of the ’88 Loma Prieta quake, as well as other catastrophic quakes like that in Japan last year, are never far from mind, although that’s not something we like to think about. We know we’re on borrowed time, and we never know if this is The Big One, or just another shaker. Perhaps it’s the pay-off of living in such a beautiful part of the world.

After today’s quake, though, I looked out my window and was cheered that my city was still there, enveloped in a beautiful swath of fog, the tip of the Transamerica Building peaking above it all. The sun was coming up, the birds were singing, the evergreens outside my building were dancing in a light breeze, and it was just another gorgeous morning in San Francisco. The earthquake was relegated to a “did you feel the quake” conversation opener and life went on as usual.

But in the back of everyone’s mind is that we in the Bay Area live on shaky ground, and that someday The Big One will hit. Maybe not today, hopefully not ever, but it’s a thought and a threat that we live with everyday.

But we San Franciscan are resilient people, and at times like these I’m always reminded of these lines from the Rodney Crowell song, “California Earthquake:”

“California earthquake, you just don’t know what you’ve done. We may fall off in the ocean, Lord, you’ll never make us run. You’re a partner of the devil, Lord, we ain’t afraid of him. We’ll build ourselves another town so you can tear it down again.”

2 Responses to Essay: EARTHQUAKE!

  1. I’d like to hear the rumble one of those approaching quakes. (“gutteral” is a great word for that!) Here in Arkansas, the approaching disaster sound is usually that of a freight train, indicating a twister. We’ve got quakes too, but fortunately nothing like the ones that shook the New Madrid 200 years ago.

  2. hi! sometimes the sound is more frightening than the actual shaking. sometimes i think you folks in the midwest have it worse. we don’t get earthquakes with much frequency, but twisters are occurring with frightening regularity in your part of the woods. be careful out there!

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