Rails bent by the 2010 Canterbury earthquake / Malcolm Teasdale

My first earthquake

Yesterday I experienced my first earthquake. It wasn’t much of one — 5.0 at the epicenter, a few hundred kilometers to the northwest, and not much more than some quesiness-inducing shaking at the coffee shop I was in at the time, taking a break from a long day of meetings — but it was definitely an earthquake.

See, I grew up in Florida. Born and raised. We have our fair share of natural disasters — hurricanes most famously, but really thunderstorms kill more people, and we have tornados now and again. Drought, too, which isn’t normally a killer, except when it leads to sinkholes that swallow your bedroom in your sleep. But no earthquakes. Not in my lifetime, at least, and hardly ever in recorded history. I suspect if Florida somehow managed to eek out a real earthquake the rickety limestone foundation upon which the entire state is perched would turn into so much dust and the whole place would sink into the Atlantic.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in China, which has its fair share of catastrophic tremblors, but I’ve managed to avoid them. A good thing, too, because Shanghai, where my wife and I have lived since 2006, sprawls across a river estuary, which is, I think, a fancy word for a swamp. In 2008, when the Wenchuan earthquake tore apart a swath of Sichuan Province, some of our tallest buildings swayed a bit, but I couldn’t feel it where I was.

For my first third of a century, earthquakes simply weren’t part of my life’s narrative. Until yesterday.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic about the earthquake that rattled the rafters in that coffeeshop in Shenyang. It really wasn’t much of an earthquake. But it was my first.

Your first is always special, even when it’s not.

I messaged my wife, who told me to go outside in case there was another, stronger one. Probably not bad advice, but I didn’t take it. I went to the bathroom instead, then sat back down at my table and finished my coffee. The coffeeshop’s glass ceiling creaked a bit as it resettled, and my coworker and I laughed that we’d be fine if the glass started to fall because there was a giant beam directly above our table that would stop it. And if the beam fell — well, the glass wouldn’t be a problem anymore, would it?

My wife called her mom, who in turn called her extended family, some of whom live pretty close to the epicenter, to confirm that they were OK (they were). My coworker and I finished our coffee, hopped in a cab, went to the airport, and boarded a flight back to Shanghai. The flight was rough, and a steady rain was drenching Shanghai when we arrived — the sort of pedestrian, mildly perturbing acts of nature to which I’m far more accustomed.

So, again, not much of an earthquake. Barely a footnote in a busy work day. But it was enough of a shake to get me thinking. What would a 9.0 earthquake — releasing a million times more energy than did the little guy that shook me yesterday — feel like? How terrifying must earthquakes have been to ancient people, for whom angry gods were a far more likely cause than plate tectonics? How amazing is it that humans — fragile little bags of bone and meat and blood and hope — could engineer structures to withstand such energy?

Inspiring almost.

But man, screw earthquakes. Give me a hurricane any day.

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