The Earthquake Experience For Those Who’ve Never Had “The Pleasure”

In the 35 plus years I’ve lived in LA, I’ve experienced two major earthquakes, plenty of minor ones and who knows how many teeny-tiny ones too small to feel.

Last night’s 4.6 temblor, apparently, is related to the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake — my first Big Un. One’s first big quake is truly special. I think it imprints on you the way you’ll react to every other earthquake you feel. At the time, my wife and I were renting a little Spanish bungalow near the corner of La Brea and Santa Monica — WeHo Adjacent in current parlance. It really was special.

The house — two bedrooms, one bathroom — sat about forty yards from the street, behind lots of trees, its own off-the-street parking lot big enough for three cars, a high fence, more trees, a swimming pool and then a few more trees. If you didn’t know that bungalow was there, you’d never guess. It was very private. We threw many excellent naked pool parties there. It was a long time ago.

On the morning of the quake (October 1st), our German shepherd Sophie had the first inkling that something was about to happen. I was up, watching the news. Kent Shockneck was doing the local spot on KNBC when — at 7:42 — the 5.9 temblor hit.

The first thing that strikes you is the sound. It comes from beneath, filling the space with its unbelievable basso profundo. That’s this particular earthquake’s sound signature. The nature of the earthquake will determine the nature of the shaking (depending on the nature of the ground you’re on). The bungalow felt like it was undulating, like something beneath it was rolling and the house was rolling right along with it. As the house’s wood and stucco material vibrated and shifted, it, too, had a sound signature. THAT makes an impression on you. You suddenly realize the structure you’re in isn’t as solid as you think.

I pulled my groggy wife from our bed and, together we stood in the nearest doorway (which, in fact, would have been a useless doorway had the house actually come down on us). From there I could see out into the yard where Sophie, our dog, stood by the pool — watching the water lap violently over the sides.

Time gets strange during an earthquake. When they’re happening, they seem to last forever. Even if it’s only been a few seconds, you feel like it might never stop. Inside my head, two very distinct reactions took place simultaneously.

The first was an intellectual reaction — my head. Being as it was my first earthquake, I was something between a tourist and a guy gawking at a car wreck on the freeway. If you can put your fear aside for a moment and appreciate — intellectually — what’s happening all around you, it’s beyond cool. It’s pure nature. It’s pure plate tectonics doing a master class with you as one of the exhibits.

That’s where the second reaction — the animal one — takes over. That sound the earth is making is truly terrifying. Nothing else sounds like that. Thank goodness. There’s no place to run to, no place to hide where the sound — and the shaking — isn’t happening. And the shaking — you absolutely believe your house can fall down on you right then and there. Throw in the sound of stuff falling and breaking (our experience during the 1994 Northridge earthquake (a 6.7 that did considerably more damage than the Whittier Narrows quake).

As calm a museum-goer as your intellectual side may be in the midst of an earthquake, your animal side (if you’re like me) is galloping around, its hair on fire, screaming “We’re doomed!” That battle gets louder and louder inside your head the longer the shaking goes on. To be honest, the only earthquake where I felt a sense of mortal peril was a minor earthquake. It may even have been an aftershock from the Whittier Narrows quake.

I was temping for a financial company downtown in their highrise. I was on the 35th floor of a building with great views — because there was glass on every single side. When the earth quakes, these tall buildings are designed to dissipate the quake’s energy by literally bending slightly. That bit of to-and-fro will save the building. Now, if you’re INSIDE a building when that’s happening, you may be able to intellectualize that that’s what’s happening all around you — a good thing — but it doesn’t feel like a good thing. As the building lurches from side to side, the same motion that’s helpfully dissipating all the energy also compels one’s body in the direction the building is shifting.

On the 35th floor, I felt like the building was pushing me toward the glass windows. That was scary.

Last night’s 4.6 wasn’t subtle. The house shook for a good four or five seconds. The earth had a sound signature and so did our rented 1902 Craftsman. “Just what we needed,” muttered my wife. It had been an awful day. On top of the pandemic shutdown and the wildfire smoke pushing everyone indoors, Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died. The implications were/are staggering.

And then the earth shook.

Our cats pretty much took the quake in stride (though one, Daisy, was a little needy for the first 20 minutes afterwards). Little or no damage has been reported as of now.

As earthquakes go, last night was a minor event. The one that happened earlier — when RBG passed away — that was the real earthquake. Maybe the Earth itself was sympathizing for a change.

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