Monday Magazine | October 2004
I’M TERRIFIED OF THE Big One. The elusive “they” say a megathrust earthquake hits the West Coast every 200 to 800 years and the last one was 300 years ago. Of course, this estimate changes depending on the ‘they’ you get your information from. So thanks to the accuracy of science, we know that the next one will hit any day now – any day until the 26th century.
When I moved from Ontario to Victoria four years ago to go to UVic, I was vaguely aware of the area’s instability, but I figured all the real damage from shifting tectonic plates was kept in California. Then one morning, I was in the bathroom getting my hair cut by my roommate. When I heard a rumble build itself up, I figured it was a crowd of people running up the stairs. Not that crowds of people typically ran up the stairs in that residence building, but there were no train tracks within earshot so I shifted to my second attribution of rumbling noises – rambunctious crowds. Then I noticed that my reflection in the mirror was shaking and I seemed to be wobbling slightly. At first I thought it was just my subconscious dance habit kicking in, as it tends to when I least expect it, but this was different. The whole floor seemed to be shifting slightly to and fro and my rhythm wasn’t nearly as impeccable as it usually is. That’s when I heard a girl yell from the hallway, “Doorway! Get in a doorway!”
I was anxious to know what this stair-charging crowd was up to. I hoped it would burst into the hall and perform some sort of intense parade for us. “Get in a doorway or you’ll miss it! They’re moving fast!”
Once my roommate and I clued in, we darted towards the door. It was more exciting than anything, at that point. I pretended I was on a surfboard, threw up a hang-ten sign and high-fived myself for experiencing my first real earthquake. Then a group of us did what naturally follows, we ran to the TV, turned on a Seattle news station and had a news anchor miles away confirm our experience. It was the Nisqually, weighing in at 6.8 on the Richter scale. For awhile I thought the whole thing was pretty neat and I told the story to my friends and family back home with excessive enthusiasm. “I could have died!” I’d yell. “The city is in shambles! A few pieces of brick fell off a wall in Seattle !”
But the more I thought about it, the more unnerved I grew about memories of a four-story building wobbling like my fifth grade teacher’s arms when she wrote on the chalkboard. The thing is built of concrete and steel and other manly things that would probably talk with a growl and grow beards if given the capacity. But as soon as Earth’s crust gets restless and decides to shift its position, these manly materials are reduced to little more than jell-o.
I started having recurring dreams about buildings being swallowed by giant cracks in the ground. Bus shelter ads warned me to quake-bolt my house and I still wonder if it’s possible to quake-bolt a single apartment unit. The aforementioned ‘they’ say that when the Big One hits, you should be prepared to spend up to three days without contact with the outside world. There will be fires, gas leaks, water shooting out of fire hydrants (a sure sign of chaos) and dogs with leashes but without owners running through the streets, terrified and lonely. This scares me. I can barely get through an afternoon without contact with the outside world. I can’t afford to stock up with supplies for a day, even when things aren’t in a state of disarray, and I hate the sight of lonely dogs.
I recently moved into an apartment on the top floor of an old mansion. The views are lovely and the slanted ceilings and claw-foot tub are adorable. But sometimes the building shakes. I don’t know what causes the shaking and even though it never lasts for more than 30 seconds, whenever it starts I’m convinced that the Big One has hit. The other day I was sitting on my bed when I noticed the plant next to me shaking ever so slightly. I did what comes instinctually when I think disaster is about to strike. I freeze, hold my breath, widen my eyes, regret not having a cellar and a little dog, refuse to make any noise, and hope that the looming disaster will blow past. The shaking stopped, but I stayed in this position until I was sure that the building wasn’t about to crumble.
I repeat this process about four times a day. Sometimes, instead of staring into space, I frantically dart my eyes around my apartment, considering appropriate doorways and plans of action. My bed is too low to get under with any reasonable ease and as much as I think I’m about to die, I’m scared that if I dash to find safety in my front doorway, that a neighbour will be coming home from work and be quite disturbed to find me bracing myself, breathing heavily.
“Doorway!” I’d scream. “Big ONE!” They’d cautiously put their key in the door, look back once to see if I was alright, mumble annoyance, and then leave me alone to panic. Then I’d be ashamed to ever do laundry again, in fear of being pointed out as the building lunatic. “Hey Heather,” they’d say, half laughing, “what’s shakin’?” Then they’d high-five each other like frat boys and I’d feel pretty small.
I also consider using the floor’s fire escape. To get to this, however, I have to break into my neighbour’s apartment. I have a hammer that would work. I’ve practiced swinging it. But I imagine throwing myself against their door, leaping past, wide-eyed, as they’re quietly enjoying afternoon tea in their kitchenette, diving head first, arms pinned to my sides, through the window and missing the ladder altogether. Again, if it turns out it was just the washing machine causing the vibrations, I’d feel really bad about a lot of things.
So, until I’m ready to face potential humiliation, I’ll stick with my current natural disaster instincts. They’ve worked so far, but I’ve got a long and tense 500 years of hoping that our tectonic plates behave themselves.