On August 23, 2011 a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Virginia. The quake caught me off guard. I was at home in northern Virginia watching TV. Just after I got comfy with my legs crossed on the coffee table, I felt a sudden horizontal shake as if I were a wobble doll being mishandled by a naughty kid. I thought at first it was a concussion from the construction site nearby. The quake lasted long enough before I realized this was a real quake. The lamp above the dining table trembled fiercely. So was the kitchen light (by then I wasn’t sure if the ceiling was shaking or it was my sight shaking). I immediately ducked under the dining table as I remembered what I learned in elementary school in China about how to react to an earthquake.
My heart pounded fast like an uncontrollable locomotive. Will this earthquake be like the one in Japan? Will I survive? After dozens of seconds, the floor finally stopped vibrating. But in that full minute my mind went crazy, thoughts jumping from fear of death to getting ready for a closure of my life. As I came out from the bottom of the table, I saw a couple of knickknacks on the shelf had fallen onto the floor. What a quake!
This was a second quake I experienced in the States, and it was a stronger one. What are the odds of having an earthquake in Virginia? Our neighbor Winnie told me in her nearly thirty years living in Virginia, this was the only time. The TV news reported the last damaging earthquake in Virginia occurred in 1897. That quake was also magnitude 5.8. I was indeed lucky to encounter a big quake and survived.
For a good one hour after the quake the telephone lines were jammed. My husband and I both tried to make phone calls to report our safety to family and to spread the news of the quake. But all we had was busy signal or operator messages saying “the number you dial is not available at the moment.” Another hour passed, the TV news finally broadcast what happened in the D.C. region as well as in NYC. I then realized the quake was so strong that people lived as far as Toronto could feel it.
For many Americans, particularly the New Yorkers and the D.C. politicians, they first associated the quake with a terrorist attack. Their first reaction was to run out of the buildings. That is a mistake to protect yourself from a quake. You become more vulnerable to the subjects that might fall off in the sky. Trees, flowerpots, windows, you name it. This is what I learned as a pupil in China. But apparently, Americans don’t have the basic knowledge about how to protect themselves from earthquake (at least not for east coast Americans). Perhaps just like the news said, it was rare to have earthquake in America’s east coast. So the Americans on the east coast neglect the quake precaution.
This unexpected natural phenomenon also tells me Americans are still living in fear after 9/11. I’m not surprised the nightmare of a terrorist attack lingers on among the New Yorkers. Fear is our biggest enemy. I remember a surviving couple from the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 told me after the quake they were sleepless for a whole week. They were afraid an aftershock might occur any time. The wife said for a while she even couldn’t sleep on a rocky train ride.
Wherever we are, if only disasters could make us stronger and calmer to face the next unexpected calamity.