Remembering Earthquakes of My Youth

Riding the waves in California

Melissa Miles McCarter
Jul 6 · 7 min read
Earthquake Screen Saver from Stock Images

I remember the rocking and bolting, holding onto the doorways. The walls shaking as we watched the books fall over off the shelf and the windows seem to buckle slightly. I remember laying in bed, feeling it sway. When will it be over?

I lived through a number of large earthquakes in Southern California. The first one I experienced made the most impression on me and it was the 1987 Whittier earthquake.

I was in junior high. It was early morning while my sister and I waited for school to begin. Rather than a school bell, the day began with a sudden start. We watched the concrete floor shudder as we clenched our backpacks. My mom was a teacher so she couldn’t rush to get us. She had her own students to get in order. We went to the school office to wait for her.

The secretary kept answering the phone, assuring parents their children they had just dropped off were safe. Eventually the parents would come back to pick them up, to wait for the next big one in the comfort of the own homes. We had to wait until my mom sent off her very last student. Our ground was shaken and all we had was a school secretary to comfort us.


What people don’t understand who haven’t felt an earthquake before is that it’s not the initial one that really scares you. Of course it shocks you and takes you off guard. It’s freaky to feel the rolling and rocking. But all you are thinking is when is it going to end.

Once the earthquake finishes, the ground continues to shake for days, if not weeks. The Whittier one was “only” 5.9 but the aftershocks were in the 2–4 range for quite awhile after. At some point it becomes so ridiculous that you just learn to ride the wave out.

I remember my best friend and I laying on our backs in the green grass during recess, feeling the slight shaking while we looked up at our California blue sky. It became our new normal, the shifting beneath our feet.

And when the ground becomes stable again, you still imagine tiny quakes. It’s as if you realize how tenuous the ground is below you and you never feel quite grounded again.

The next earthquake I experienced was in 1990 with the one in Upland. It was quite modest because we were pretty far away. We just rolled with it for a few minutes. No jolt of recognition.

Perhaps I was more jaded as a high school student, more pre-occupied with boys and the trappings of being a teen-age girl. I don’t remember the shock I must have felt. It didn’t rock me to the core like the one years before.

Probably we could have gone a whole other way, traumatized by the one we felt a few years earlier. But my sister and I were earthquake warriors now, ready for the next rock and roll.

In 1990 there was the Sierra Madre quake. We actually lived only a few miles from the epicenter. I was done with high school and about to go to college, so the earthquake was a nice bridge between them. A metaphorical shift in my life matched by the actual one in the ground.

I really don’t remember what the experience was like. I was probably tired of the drama surrounding the whole thing. There was no major damage or loss of life in my life to make the whole experience resonate in my teenage mind. There wasn’t social media or intense 24 hour news coverage to amp up our paranoia. The ground shook. So what.

I was farther away from the epicenter in the 1994 Northridge quake, but that had more of an effect on me. I was asleep when it happened. It’s the weirdest thing to have yourself literally shook out of bed. My boyfriend at the time had stayed over and we went outside the dorm with the other students when the Earth finally stood still.

I was at a women’s college, and he from a college across the street. I looked around and a lot of my female dorm-mates had the same idea, their boyfriends standing by them with sleepy eyes. Many of the guys actually knew each other. They’d shake hands and say hi. It became a cocktail party in robes where we saw each other’s bedroom inclinations. In many cases I was surprised.

My boyfriend and I went back to the room to learn more on my tiny television. An apartment complex collapsed, a college was damaged. People died. We were worried because I couldn’t get ahold of my best friend, who lived in the area.

This was before cell phones, before you could virtually GPS a person through their social media account. The landlines were down and we just had to wonder. Finally she was able to get through, calling to say all was all right. I remembered the green grass cradling us years ago while we let the ground rock us. We were nearing adulthood, so we no longer had the luxury of grown-ups doing the worrying for us.


I live in Missouri now. Our blue skies aren’t as intense, I no longer lay in green grass. We have mountains here in the Southeast part of the state and we live in a valley that was created by the Earth breaking apart many, many years ago. There’s actually a big fault-line nearby, The New Madrid, and it is due for “the big one.”

Our house is around 170 years old, but it wasn’t built when the last big one hit in the early 1800s. We don’t know if the bricks would crumble around us in a similarly intense jolt. My mom’s house is 45 minutes away and very close to the fault. She has earthquake insurance, $24 every month.

We’ve actually felt the ground move here a few times. Nothing over 5.0, minor ones you’d only notice a slight shake in bed and wake up to find the pictures on the wall slightly askew. We have tornados, flooding, even experienced an inland hurricane once. Our disasters increased by the ecosystem aching, straining against the weight of humanity. Earthquakes aren’t part of man-made climate change. We can’t blame everything on that. The ground shakes because it’s the nature of it.

My mom will call me, slight panic in her voice, after a Missouri quake. She remembers the intense shaking of our time in California, a place where everything is naturally technicolor. Are you okay? Anything damaged? Do you think the big one is next?

I assure her we are fine and we go back to sleep. My husband lies snoring beside me, unaware anything had happened. I look up on my iPad to see what magnitude it was. 4.2, the epicenter about 100 miles away. We are fine. We are safe. I update my Facebook status to announce to anyone who might care.

I’m sure students today walk the grounds of their schools more carefully than we did. They no longer just have disaster drills, they practice active shooter drills as well. I’ve had moments of worry interrupt my day thinking about my stepson being a student and my husband a professor at both of their colleges. It’s worry that figures into my plan to homeschool my daughter. She won’t be away from her mother in a school office when the ground shakes.


I am reading my Twitter feed when a New York Times notification pops up on my phone informing me there has been a second earthquake in Southern California in two days over 6.0, this one 7.1. I know the fear, the anticipation, the adrenaline rush people there all feel.

I watch Instagram stories showing lines in Whole Foods making sure they have enough pesto in stock in their homes. On the news, images of tent cities in the underpasses and empty homes in Malibu that were burned out by fires are joined by images of broken glass on the floor of homes near the epicenter.


In college, after the Northridge quake, I downloaded a screen saver on my computer that in real-time showed when an earthquake hit, no matter how small. It was connected to Cal Tech’s data and I would watch red dot after red dot pop up on a map of California on my screen. A lot of people might not realize that there are hundreds of earthquakes, if not thousands, in California; the ground shakes everyday. Many are just imperceptible, at 1.0 or less and often in remote areas.

I’m guessing that screen saver has morphed into an app that I could use to sense the small shudders here in Missouri that I know happen every day. But I’ll go back to sleep lulled by the idea that earthquakes only happen in California. Its coastline will drop off into the ocean with the next big one, but the ground here won’t swallow us up whole. I’ll just let it gently rock me to sleep.


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Melissa Miles McCarter

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I live in a rural Civil War era home under constant renovation with my husband, stepson and daughter. Read more at https://medium.com/melissa-miles-mccarter

The Ascent

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