You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.
So here I am to try, and to fail, so I can learn.
Paul Fail. For The Win!

11 March 2011

Earthquake Thoughts

A Happy update! Heard from Mariko and she and her family are OK!  No further details, but at least she and her family are fine.
In the late '80s we had a Japanese Foreign Exchange student stay with us for a couple of weeks.  Mariko came into our lives speaking very little English, but bringing an indomitable spirit.  After coming back to the States to live for several years she moved back to Japan and married a wonderful man.  She just gave birth to their first child not too long ago, as did her sister-in-law.  It is the Japanese custom for new mothers to live with their folks for the first couple of months, so most of the family was under one roof.  They live near Honshu, which was close to the epicenter of the most recent 8.9 quake.  It will be days before we know anything, I'm sure, but I know their strength, and have faith in that; and in their goodness.  What follows below is a recounting of my earthquake experience from a couple decades ago.  It is not much, I know, but it might perhaps give those who have never been through a large Earthquake an idea of what it is like...

The Loma Prieta Earthquake hit October 17th, 1989 at 5:04pm.  I was, as the crow flies, about 5 miles from the epicenter.  I was a sophomore in High School, loved the A's, and was excited by the Bay Bridge World Series that was going on.  I was lying on my bed watching the pregame on the TV.  My Mom was in the living room reading.  It was sunny, warm, and a day like any other.

Then, and to this day I'm not quite sure how, I found myself in mid air.  Without conscious thought I had rolled over in the bed, pushed off, and was literally parallel to the ground just about to land and run for the doorframe when the earthquake hit.  So many things happened at once it's almost a blur, but time for me is forever frozen there, too.  That fraction of a second, hanging in the air, wondering why in the Hell I was suddenly leaping; will always be burned into my memory.  That's when the entire house moved, slamming back and forth on its foundation.  That's when a roar like a freight train rent the air.  It felt like God was kicking the house.  And he was pissed.

I landed and staggered.  The roar really was deafening, there was no other sound beyond.  There was no sound of glass breaking, furniture moving, or anything else.  Just an all encompassing wall of sound flowing, but never ebbing.  My doorframe was probably 8 feet away and it took at least that many steps to get there.  Balancing itself was a chore.  I got to the doorframe, pushed back against it with both legs, and clasped it with both hands just to stay put.

My Mom came to the frame from the living room.  I could see the floor heave like the swells of an angry sea as she crossed over it, practically falling into me and the doorframe.  I have no idea how long it took us to reach each other there because time was both dilated AND constricted.  There was just the Roar and an angry Earth below us for whatever remained of the 39 seconds of shaking.  We held onto each other, but not for comfort: it was the only way to keep us both in the doorframe.  That changed when the Earthquake passed, and we realized we needed to get out of the house before the aftershocks came.

We went down the hall to leave through the kitchen.  There we saw that every cabinet and cupboard had opened, and three inches of broken glass, plates, and cups covered the entire tile floor.  We had been only ten feet away, in the doorframe, and we heard nothing break.  We also realized we weren't going out through the garage.

We went back the way we had come and left by the front door.  As we passed the living room, we saw that the Grandfather clock had fallen, and the upright piano was now halfway into the room.  The upright piano it had taken half a dozen brawny men, literally, to move into place was walked 6 feet across the carpet in a matter of seconds by the quake.

We had no idea if the house was still sound or not so we left straightaway without grabbing a thing.  We walked across the deck, down to the driveway, and stood at the far edge of it.  Dust was all around us, and a haze of dust was hovering over the town down by the Ocean.  The garage door, which had been shaken loose from its rails, was now just hanging above the garage.  One end was resting on top of the VW van, the other was dangling close to the ground where my Dad's car usually parked, but was still with my Dad at work.

All the chemicals my Dad had, gasoline for the lawn mower, paint thinner, WD40, that kind of stuff, was all in a single stand alone cabinet that was now knocked over; with a puddle of some amalgamation thereof slowly creeping out it.  Between that and the Van our 12 year old lab/mutt came slowly wandering out.  She was deaf and arthritic, and didn't look so much panicked as deeply unsure. 

She came, sat with us, and we soon rode out the first aftershock.  It was in the mid 6's, but seemed all of the sudden rather impotent.  Across the valley we could see a house shaking as it swept, this time quietly.  Not too soon after, with the help of a neighbor, we got the Van out of the garage, and that's where my Mom and I spent the night.  My Dad worked for Emergency Communications for the County and we wouldn't see much of him for the next couple days.  There were more aftershocks, but they weakened each time.  Within a week we had electricity and water again, and life went back to normal.

To this day I don't remember any of what my Mom and I said during that afternoon and night, but I do remember when a dark cloud of dread came across us.  We didn't know how close we were to the actual epicenter, so we thought we were feeling the remnants of the Big One hitting San Francisco.  There 50,000 people alone at Candlestick to watch the game; some of whom were good friends.  We had other friends in the City, too, and some lost even more than we did to the fires that hit.  But it was also a relief when we finally found out that it was us who bore the brunt of it, and not a tightly packed city of hundreds of thousands built on landfill.  Even though our own, small downtown was essentially gutted, we all couldn't help but think that it could've been far, far worse.

That always seems to be the refrain after such a disaster, that it, "Could've been worse."  We had dozens and dozens of buildings in my town destroyed, but only a handful of deaths.  Our own house had cracked stucco.  The insurance adjuster told us he came across a woman "vacuuming" her living room with a vacuum that wasn't even plugged in.  She hadn't noticed that the entire side of her house had fallen away, leaving its whole backside open.

For the next several months, there were no strangers in our town.  In every line you stood in, any place you waited next to someone else; you would talk, share stories, and bond.  We were our own ad hoc support group.  We shared each other's losses, enjoyed the little pieces of humor here and there, and marveled at the miracles.  I'll leave you with one, from my Science Teacher.  His 2 year old was watching TV in front of a large entertainment center when it hit.  The force threw the TV over her.  Then the entire unit fell towards her.  Far from being hurt, she ended up sitting, completely untouched, in the space the TV had just vacated.

Crises are defining moments for people, both individually and collectively.  The larger crises' can certainly bring about some of the worst in people, like the burgeoning scams already spreading.  But they also bring out the very best in people, and I know that that heart, that spirit, that courage, and that strength is flowing throughout Japan now too.

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