When the ‘solid’ ground moves

My hubby and I have experienced al kinds of strange phenomena on our travels, and I have to say that an earthquake was the eeriest. We walk around on this earth expecting it to stay put, and when it doesn’t it’s unnerving.

Ontario, the province I live in, experiences very mild tremors from time to time, but every level upward on the Richter scale is incrementally more powerful. The earthquake we were in while visiting friends in California a number of years ago was 4.6, and while no one got hurt, our immediate instinct was to find an aircraft and get the hell off the ground (very different from the way we felt after our aborted flight to Milford Sound in New Zealand years later, when the turbulence was so bad I literally wanted to kiss the ground in relief upon landing).

I can’t even imagine the feeling of a 7.8 quake, which according to the old seismic scale created by Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg in the 1930s, would be 30 times stronger that the one we went through. Photos in news media, and the enormous loss of life, tell the actual story.

Our minor quake started as a rumble, as if a large truck was coming down the road, and that’s what we thought it was. But instead of passing by the house of our friends, where we were staying, it just seemed to keep coming and coming. One of our friends jumped up to hold the china cabinet in place and keep it from toppling over, which in retrospect was unlikely – but one of the worst things about earthquakes when they begin is you have no idea how bad they’re going to be.

We were warned not to go outside, where those pretty red clay Californian roof tiles tend to pop off like lethal frisbees. The best thing to do was find a part of the house with the most structural integrity, as in a bathroom (all the pipes in the walls) or any cased doorway.

Riding it out, the initial quake felt like it went on forever, but was less than a minute. Our friends were used to it; we were quite freaked out. Then the aftershocks began, and trickled on for hours. Some were very subtle (it was Christmastime, and occasionally we could see the tree ornaments jiggling even though we couldn’t feel anything), others were startling, as if a gigantic creature kicked the house and shifted it a few inches. We had visions of great cracks opening in the ground (thanks, Hollywood!), which didn’t happen at the time, but they certainly have in Turkey.

In Turkey and Syria, it was the buildings themselves that were the danger, by all accounts for one main reason: they hadn’t all been built to code. The quake took place on February 6th, and by the 12th, 113 arrest warrants had been issued to contractors and others in the building industry for failing to follow quake guidelines. According to BBC News, experts in Turkey had been warning for years that many new buildings were unsafe due to corruption in the industry as well as government policies that, in order to encourage a construction boom, allowed contractors to circumvent the regulations. And of course, it’s been largely the innocent public who’ve paid the price, over 30,000 of them dying in Turkey and more than 5,000 in Syria as rescuers work frantically to try and recover them under hundreds of pounds of rubble.

Earthquake-proofing a building, or a city, has been studied extensively since the famous San Francisco quake in 1906. Little was known about the mechanics and geology of earthquakes in that time. Based on modern scales that have superseded the Richter model, the quake was likely around 7.9 – a major shake that flattened buildings never meant to withstand such stresses.

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Looking northeast. By Chadwick, H. D – This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2128556

To make matters worse, fires broke out all over the devastated city, and the water supply for fighting them wasn’t up to the task.

San Francisco, and all of California, lie along the enormous San Andreas Fault, 750 miles of trouble. Californians straddle the geographic wrestling match between the world’s two largest tectonic plates:

the Pacific Plate (covering almost the entire bottom of the Pacific Ocean, 40 million square miles), which is moving steadily in a northwest direction, and the North American Plate (29 million square miles, covering most of North America, down into the Caribbean and eastward across a good portion of the Atlantic Ocean), which is moving southwest but is forced into a southeastward direction by its massive neighbour. Photos of the Fault look like a nasty scar on the landscape.

Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain; By Ikluft – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3106006

The earthquake in Turkey and Syria occurred along the fault between the Anatolia and Arabia Plates, with the top edge of the Africa Plate just a short distance south. The two major fault lines created by this juxtaposition, have a slip rate of 1/4 inch to almost 1/2 inch a year. The San Andreas Fault’s slip rate is substantially greater, at more than 3/4 inch, but California’s building codes are much stronger.

So how does one make a building as quake-proof as possible?

Well, I can tell you that the Incans in Peru did it quite well. The Spanish invaders regularly built their churches and other buildings on top of Incan walls – and when the next earthquake came along, the Spanish structures fell down and went boom while the Incan constructions remained serenely intact. The 2007 earthquake in Peru, along the central coast, measured 8.0. In the town of Pisco, right in the middle of the quake, you can see how it damaged an old church on the town square, to the point where the building became unusable and a new church had to be constructed beside it. Fortunately, the fast-moving Nazca and South American Plates (3 inches per year), stayed put while we were there, and the only shaking anyone might have felt was after a few stiff Pisco Sours.

The secret of Incan construction was huge stone blocks interlinked with holes matched up with protrusions that locked the walls together. Their civilization was brilliant at creating long-lasting structures.

Incan wall showing remnants of the original construction details – protrusions and holes that fitted together to lock a wall into place, taken at the Museo Inka in Cuzco, Peru – E. Jurus,all rights reserved

For modern buildings, keeping them standing during a quake depends on the size of the building. Average wood-framed homes in California can apply to be retrofitted to make them sturdier. The “Earthquake Brace + Bolt (EBB)” system involves bracing any ‘cripple’ walls (walls 4’ or less between the frame and the foundation) in the crawl space under the house (no basements in California) with plywood sheaths to strengthen them, and then using large anchor bolts to connect the wooden frame to the concrete foundation. It’s all designed to keep a house from sliding off its foundation during a quake. The retrofit also straps in the home’s water heater, which can tip over and damage water lines, gas lines and electrical wiring. Contractors have to be trained by FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency).

Multi-storey buildings have their foundations put on what’s called ‘seismic base isolation, using isolator bearings of layers of rubber and steel with a lead core. These reduce the amount of vibration a tall building experiences. It’s remarkably effective – you can watch a video demonstration here. Buildings may also contain steel-plate shear walls and other damping materials that reduce the lateral movement of the structure.

Something like 80% of all the major earthquakes on Earth occur around the volatile Ring of Fire – basically the edges of the Pacific Plate. Here in Canada, it’s lovely British Columbia that suffers the brunt of the Ring of Fire’s ire. Our government’s website has information and instructions on what to do should you find yourself in the throes of a good shake.

  • If you’re inside, stay there and “Drop, Cover and Hold On” – drop under sturdy furniture like a desk or a bed, cover your head and torso to protect against falling objects, and hold on tight to whatever you’re under.
  • Stay away from windows and shelves with heavy objects.
  • If you can’t find something strong to hide under, crouch or flatten against an interior wall.
  • If outside, stay there and move away from any buildings BUT if in a crowded place find some cover so you’re not trampled.
  • If in a vehicle, pull over safely and avoid blocking the road. Avoid anything that could collapse on or underneath you, like bridges and overpasses/underpasses. Stop the car, stay inside, and listen to the radio for emergency instructions.
  • In general, avoid: doorways with doors that might slam shut and hurt you; bookcases and other tall furniture that can easily fall over on you; elevators; coastlines (tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes).

The site also has instructions on how to make your home as safe as possible if you live in an area prone to substantial quakes, and what to do after the quake has happened.

It took my hubby and I thirteen years to work up the nerve to return to California (if you knew our track record with bizarre travel adventures you’d understand), but we’ve been several times since and – to date – haven’t experienced another one. We were also lucky in Peru just a few years after the 2007 quake and in New Zealand (which just had a 6.1 quake on February 13th), where we watched the city of Christchurch on South Island still rebuilding from two bad quakes in 2011. Is our luck running out? We may find out in British Columbia when we visit for Storm Season – not sure when, but it’s on my bucket list.

Celebrating life

Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve survived 2020, and I deeply hope all of the people you care about have as well. There were parts of the past year during which we may have forgotten to celebrate being alive – parts where we may have felt anxiety, frustration, even pain.

But here we are, on the cusp of what we all hope will be a much better year. I’ve always advocated looking forward, not backward. We can’t change what’s passed, although we can learn from it and enjoy memories of the good times. I believe that, on our journey through life, we should create as many good memories as we can, to balance out the bad memories that come along without our choosing them. We can choose to be a good person, to be our own person, to laugh as much as possible, and to do the right thing.

We can choose to make the best of things instead of the worst, or at least to give it our best shot.

My late mother-in-law travelled with my hubby and I on several occasions, and she used to remark on our capacity to stay calm when things didn’t go according to plan. Part of that ability developed through long experience – something always happens on our trips, and often more than once – but mainly we’ve always tried to make the best of things, because that just feels much better than the down side.

Life is pretty amusing if you’re willing to look at it that way. Case in point, and the reason for the photo for this week’s blog: our first trip together involving flights, the year we got engaged. We flew to visit friends in California, over the Christmas break because I was still in university and that was the only time we could go together.

I was excited about flying on a big plane, but nervous and a little queasy the entire time. The snow storm we had in Ontario the day before our departure hadn’t boosted my confidence either. But four and a half hours later we were landing in LAX on a balmy night, and not long after that our friends pulled into the driveway of their tile-roofed Spanish-style bungalow in Santa Monica.

The next morning the hazy air smelled of the sea and of eucalyptus. I spent the week falling in love with California, from the fresh oranges on the tree in our hosts’ back yard to the famous places like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood and Disneyland. My first sight of palm trees, lining the street our friends’ lived on, and of the ocean, crashing in rolling waves onto the wide sand beaches just like it did in all the movies, was absolutely thrilling – this was the first time I’d been outside my home province. We passed swathes of red poinsettia growing wild on hillsides, not confined to little plastic pots.

We had a late New Year’s Eve, and about two hours of sleep before we all got up early to take a bus to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade. I also had a lingering case of strep throat, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my favourite parade live and in person! I remember waiting impatiently in line on the grounds of Pepperdine University to get on the bus, and climbing up the bleachers lining the parade route with my 35mm camera at the ready. It was chilly at 8am, but the sun was shining and across the street the mountains surrounding the city were lavender in the morning haze.

The parade was wonderful and the floats even more glorious when you’re sitting just a few feet away from them. When the Rose Parade returns in the future, I recommend it for your bucket list.

Since that day it’s become an annual ritual in our home to get up on January 1st, put on the kettle and a bit of breakfast, and watch the year’s beautiful flowered floats in their bright colours wind past the television cameras.

But on that day, by the time the parade finished, our short night and my illness caught up with me on the seemingly interminable bus ride back to Pepperdine; I fell asleep before the bus even left Pasadena and woke up just long enough to get in our hosts’ car to return to their house. Everyone else camped out in the living room to watch the Rose Bowl, but I made a beeline for the bed, stripped down, crawled in, and promptly fell fast asleep.

I remember waking up at one point with the bed shaking, and thinking groggily ‘Oh, we must be having an earthquake’, but falling fast asleep again – which tells you how out of it I was feeling. Until about a minute later when my hubby – then fiancé – burst through the door yelling, “Get up, we’re having an earthquake!!!”, with everyone else close behind him.

The problem was that I hadn’t bothered to put pyjamas on, so while he was urging me to get up I was clutching the sheets up to my chin and trying to point out to him that I couldn’t move until everyone left the room. After some confusion around that, I finally got the opportunity to get dressed without an audience, and joined the crew in the living room.

Looking back, it was a hilarious, if completely anxiety-riddled day. The original quake was 4.6 on the Richter Scale, so nothing serious, but while you’re in the middle of it you have no idea of how it’s going to end. Fed by Hollywood, I was having visions of the earth splitting open and houses falling in.

Some of the aftershocks were worse than the quake. One felt a giant had come along and kicked the house – the whole building just gave a sudden jerk. Others trickled along, evidenced only by the ornaments jiggling slightly on our hosts’ Christmas tree. At a couple of points our hosts ran over to their china cabinet to keep it from toppling over. Another aftershock caught me in the bathroom, with my hubby pounding on the door for me to come out while I tried to explain that I was “in the middle of something at the moment”.

An announcement about the quake was aired right in the middle of the football game, so we had to call home and reassure everyone that we were okay. That would be the first of many such calls over the years.

By dinnertime, after several hours of ongoing aftershocks, my hubby and I were pretty twitchy, so our friends decided to distract us by taking us to Olvera Street, the very first street of what would one day become the sprawling city of Los Angeles. At that time Olvera wasn’t as structured as it is today, but I remember lots of stalls selling colourful decorations and food, and we had our first taste of Mexican cuisine. We had enchiladas that were an explosion of flavour in our mouths, and we craved them intensely for years after we got home because we simply couldn’t get it anywhere around here.

The earthquake spooked us so badly that it took us thirteen years to return to California, but we’ve been there many times since, enjoying the sun, the scents, and the food! We laugh about that first trip a lot; it was a wonderful introduction to travel for me, despite the quake. When I learned that there wouldn’t be an actual Rose Parade this New Year’s Day, I had to run out and get flowers to make our own small homage to the parade and to California – the end result is what you see in the photo. It also celebrates Nature’s artistic mastery, which will be the theme of many of my blogs in 2021 because that’s something we need to preserve.

We hope to get back to California again one day, to Africa again, and to all the other places we still dream about, but in the meantime we will enjoy life to the fullest, even if it’s via small floral celebrations perched on our coffee table. I think that’s a good way to live.