Last evening, just after we’d put the kids to bed, we had an earthquake that rattled the house, had us all running outside, and trembling. Peter was surprised it scared me more than the now-legendary Loma Prieta earthquake, which was technically bigger, and I was surprised when I checked the USGS Quake info site (the only timely newssource on earthquakes) that it was only a 5.6. It had been shaking so bad that Neil almost fell down the stairs on the way out and Kelly was screaming at the “bad giant” who was shaking our house.

Our personal surprises were answered by the fact that distance and location, two things about earthquakes people who don’t live in earthquake zones don’t seem to understand, have everything to do with how a quake affects you. An earthquake is like a pebble thrown into a pond: the vibrations ripple out in concentric circles, weakening in distance. Yesterday’s quake was on the Calaveras fault, only 8 miles from our home. In comparison, Peter and I were, respectively, about 50 and 70 miles away from the epicenter of the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake. Furthermore, I was on a bus at the time, and I thought the bouncing of the bus was just bad driving, making me probably the only person in the Bay Area who was surprised to find out I’d just experienced the biggest Bay Area earthquake in over 80 years. In contrast, last night I was in my house. Like most California houses of its era, its foundation has springs in it, so it will bounce instead of break in an earthquake. It’s safer, but it’s not psychologically easy to find yourself in a jiggling house when an earthquake strikes.

I also hesitated to post this because people who don’t know earthquakes are disproportionately freaked by them. I was working in San Francisco at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake (for a property management company, and in an old brick building that was quickly condemned because of structural damage) but it was nowhere near as bad as people imagined. Largely due to modern construction, all the buildings in San Francisco remained standing and everyone in them got out safely. Some, with poor or aged foundations or instable ground (like in the Marina) were condemned later, but that’s as far as that went. One brick building lost some bricks which struck and killed two computer journalists, and a double-decker freeway which I already hated because you could feel it was lumpy and damaged while driving on it collapsed and crushed the people on the bottom layer. And a piece of the Bay Bridge fell out, which meant East Bay commuters had to cram onto BART cars or ferries for a while.

All in all, 63 people died. I think more people than that die in car accidents every day. But my friends were all convinced San Francisco was a heap of rubble, because the only thing they saw on TV were the most dramatic pictures. It was even more ridiculous when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, and people were calling me. That was 500 miles away: it would have had to have been a 9 for me to even get jiggled a little.

But I still miss my nonchalance of that time. Last night, I found myself fretting that the earthquake we had wasn’t the big one it turned out to be, but merely the foreshock to an even bigger one (as is sometimes, rarely, the case.) It wasn’t, but we had a 2.8 aftershock at 3 am that woke me up and had me running over to Kelly’s room. Everyone else slept through it.

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