Waiting For The Big One

Street damage after the Northridge quake. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Street_Damage_After_Northridge_Earthquake.jpg

I live in Los Angeles, a city with miraculous blue skies and more sunshine than entirely necessary. We are hugged on one side by the vast, blue Pacific Ocean’s perfect sandy beaches and roaring waves. The rest of the city is fenced in by mountains. Depending on your idea of beauty, it’s a beautiful city, one of the biggest in the world, with more to offer than you have time to explore.

Los Angeles is not perfect. There is the ever-present smog, kept captive over the city by the mountains, causing an orange fogginess most days unless it has rained recently.

There’s the oppressive summer heat where, for at least a week, usually two or three, it never dips below 100 degrees (37.7 c) during the day. They say it’s a dry heat without humidity, as if that makes 100 degrees more bearable. 100 degrees still feels like 100 degrees, humidity or not.

There’s the ongoing drought that most property owners tend to ignore when they plant their emerald-green lawns. Los Angeles likes to pretend it’s not in the desert.

There’s fire season where hundreds or thousands of acres burn. During fire season, it rains ash. The sky is grayish-brown obscuring the sun. It’s impossible to breathe and your eyes get stingy and red.

There are the Santa Ana winds that come barreling through the southland with gusts that will knock you over. I’ve written about them before. They topple trees and power lines, and spread fire. They are an uneasy kind of wind. Whenever they come, and they come several times a year and last for several days, they spread a vast net of anxiety over the city. Everyone is a little more on edge and a little quicker to snap. The winds howling through any crevice and crack in our homes make it just that much harder to sleep.

At the other end of fire season, during the rainy season, those barren hills ravaged by fire slide down into swimming pools, taking houses, power lines and whatever else they find down with them to the bottom, like a muddy avalanche. People rebuild their homes on the same spot expecting different results this time.

Yet, those are external threats. They come from the atmosphere. The worst threat, the most dangerous, the one most Angelinos avoid thinking about, even more than the drought, is the next big earthquake.

There was an earthquake this morning. It woke me up, which is saying something since I take sleeping pills. I heard a sonic boom like a thousand claps of thunder at once. Everything started rattling, then shaking, then jumping, then nothing. As quickly as it came, it passed, leaving me wide awake in the dark with my heart pounding.

I don’t like earthquakes. In the fifteen years I’ve lived here, I’ve only experienced a handful and none of them have been all that much bigger than this morning’s which was a 4.4 on the Richter scale. That’s considered a mid-size earthquake. The last earthquake to do major damage in Los Angeles was the Northridge quake in 1994, only a few miles from where I currently sit.

Whenever there’s an earthquake in LA, the Northridge quake usually comes up. “Do you remember The Northridge?” I didn’t move to Los Angeles until five years later, so I don’t remember it, but people who were here then certainly do. They’ll tell you where they were and how much damage they got.

Earthquakes are a funny thing in Los Angeles. Whenever there’s a quake, that’s all we talk about. The usual “How was your weekend?” is replaced by “Did you feel it?” I asked my coworker that this morning. It woke both of us up. This morning’s quake, which did very little damage and therefore, won’t even get a name, will be the talk of the town today. Experts are on the radio talking about earthquake preparedness and what you should have on hand.

By tomorrow, it will be forgotten.

We have to forget. We don’t have another choice. We cannot live with a constant threat. We would drive ourselves insane if that’s all we thought about or talked about. So, we go out and buy some bottled water and maybe a first aid kit, we put it in the hall closet and then forget about it until the next quake.

There will always be a next quake. Here’s hoping it’s not the big one.