Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Earthquake Narrative: Washington, DC

Having never experienced an earthquake before yesterday afternoon, I don’t have a lot of creative metaphors to share. That's usually what one turns to in order to describe an unusual event for the audience. The most immediate one I can think of is that the tremor itself felt like being on a broken rollercoaster. I had all of a second to brace myself. People around me took one hard step to the left and crouched down. I did the same. The wisdom or folly of this act I did not have time to contemplate. For all of four to five seconds, the world slowed down and the intensity of the earthquake rendered all human decisions insignificant.

I imagine that it must feel the same while in the direct presence of God. But to return to my narrative, I was outside at the time, waiting for a bus to arrive. Ten other people were standing nearby, all doing the very same thing. Directly in front of me was a yellow brick high-rise apartment complex of perhaps ten stories, and slightly to my right, a school for young children. During the experience, my eye kept being drawn to the apartments, fearing flying debris from a collapsing structure. That was my first thought as to what had occurred, but after the rumbling stopped, the apartment remained unscathed. I peered down the street to my left, expecting rubble to have piled up. Nothing there, either.

For ten to fifteen seconds or more everyone looked dazed and uncertain what to think. Something in the back of my mind managed to put two and two together. “I bet it was an earthquake”, I said, to the person next to me. Expecting some sort of confirmation, I received nothing. At that time I was in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, one full of recent immigrants to the area. It is entirely likely that my remarks were not fully understood. Either that, or it was unlikely two very different cultures even regularly spoke to each other much. I expected someone to validate my thoughts, to say “You know, you could be right.” But I received no feedback, only stares.

A bell at the school across the street began to ring, signifying that it was being evacuated. Slowly, quietly, a group of children filed out. One girl had apparently been a little shaken up, and was being propped up under each arm by a teacher. She was escorted a small distance away from the rest of the students, located alongside the railing of a black iron fence. She didn’t seem to be in pain, just dazed. Truthfully, we were all a little dazed from the experience. At that moment, someone with access to the news confirmed to all that we had, indeed, experienced an earthquake. I took my cell phone out and started dialing, trying to see if everyone I knew was okay. The network was nonfunctional. I wasn’t very surprised. I figured the quake had knocked out cell towers.

By then, I began to wonder what the rest of the city looked like. Before I could wonder too long, the bus arrived, I entered, and took my seat. The mind sometimes strays in strange directions after a major event. I began to wonder about whether we were experiencing the beginning of the End Times. I wasn't even raised to believe in them, but there have been so many predictions recently, some serious, some clearly in jest. I have to say that it's also been at the back of my mind. The worse things get, the more I wish for something to save us from ourselves.

The Book of Revelation talks about the arrival of earthquakes precluding the End of the World. Seismic activity like this and on this scale is unheard of on the East Coast. I quickly squelched this line of thought, but it is curious how we reach for answers when none have yet been provided. Humanity has managed to approximate closely the conditions and experiences of nature's wrath, but we are still subservient to it.

DC residents are not unfriendly, but usually stay in their own heads, on their own way to somewhere else. After a crisis, there is a compelling need to process and to form community. It was quite unusual yesterday to be approached randomly for a conversation by a stranger on multiple occasions. One woman, a young mother with a baby in a stroller, asked me whether it was safer to be outside during an earthquake or inside. At that stage, we were all concerned about the threat of aftershocks.

A group of teenagers in a car called out, asking me whether I’d felt the earthquake. I indicated that I had and provided a brief description. They seemed disappointed, apparently having been in the car at the time and missed it. Based on what I’d recently been through, it seemed silly that anyone would voluntarily want to experience what I had. I could still remember the sickening, nauseating sensation of being out of control, and the fear that if the shaking continued longer, I would lose my balance and fall.

I spent the next several hours at a restaurant nearby to wait it out. When aftershocks seemed to be few and far between, I left for the apartment. Most everything was okay, but the earthquake knocked over a sewing kit, a few books, and every single shampoo bottle in the shower. The bathroom seemed to have fared the worst of every room, just in general. I was very lucky. The city was very lucky. For all the talk of East Coast panic, I think we handled it properly. It was an unfamiliar situation and we had no prior system in place. We had no prior knowledge upon which to base our judgments. And I, for one, am in no hurry to go through another.

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