“The Big One”

Cold rain drizzles down outside my living room window but I’m snug and warm, curled up on the sofa with my dog Kieran. Outside, the garbage trucks rumble down the street. Most of the houses on my block are small cottages with proud brick chimneys built in the 1920s. They are cozy, sturdy, safe havens that have sheltered people for almost 90 years. It has been a stormy March and everyone wonders when the next dry day will be, but we’re used to rain and it’s quiet and peaceful on my street. Bansuri flute music flows out of the stereo in serene waves. I have hot water, tea in the cupboard, and food in the fridge. The furnace is working. Water comes out when I turn on the faucet.

Just now, I appreciate these things. A lot. Today I don’t take a single one of them for granted.

Five thousand miles away in Japan, other people’s houses were destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. The news on TV shows heaps of splintered wood instead of buildings. The devastation goes on for miles. Whole towns have been wiped out. Countless numbers of people are dead, missing, or homeless. People farther inland whose homes are still standing are without electricity, heat, or water. It’s snowing.

Here in Portland, the local news stations bring geologists in to warn that the Cascadia fault off our coast is identical to the fault in Japan. They say we could be next.

I lived my whole childhood in fear of the atomic bomb. We had air raid drills at school, as if crouching under our desks would save us! I grew up in the time when people built bomb shelters in their yards. Whenever an airplane flew overhead, I was afraid it would be the one that would drop the bomb. The cold war threat stayed constant during my high school years. I played Bob Dylan’s song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” over and over. I wrote down the words. I memorized them.

I’m not sure when the nuclear bomb threat gave over to “The Big One–” the earthquake that would separate California from the North American continent and plunge the whole state to the bottom of the ocean. Quakes happen all the time in California. Some of them come with a rumble as loud as thunder. After people started talking about The Big One, I expected to die every time the earth shook. But the constant scares make you go numb after awhile, and now people say “Oh, was that an earthquake?” and go on with their lives.

My mother experienced the Long Beach earthquake in 1933. It was a 6.4 and was devastating. The schools were destroyed, but the quake happened at dinnertime when all the kids were at home. At least there was that one good thing.

The biggest earthquake I’ve experienced was the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. That was a 7.1. I lived in the remote rural area of Cachagua and worked in Monterey, about an hour’s drive away. That day, I stayed in “town” late and went to my sister’s house in Pacific Grove to watch a movie she had rented. We were sitting on her bed watching, propped up on pillows when the earthquake hit. It lasted for what felt like a long time. The bed swayed back and forth and we rode it out like an amusement park ride. The TV went black. There would be no more electricity for days, but as far south as we were from the epicenter, we had very little damage.

The drive home that night was eerie–there were no lights at all. I felt lost. I hadn’t realized how much light and sense of orientation come from the windows of distant houses until it all disappeared. I got home and my daughter Eithne and her boyfriend Mike had kerosene lamps lit. It looked so welcoming and cozy after the long, dark drive home. And then we were stuck. Gas stations were all shut down, as the pumps depend on electricity. I had been planning to get gas before I went home from work. Now I didn’t have enough gas left to drive back into town, and when some of the gas stations opened up, Mike gave me the gas out of his motorcycle to go and fill up.

Our water was on a well with an electric pump. We had no electricity and no water. I kept a bunch of gallon jugs of water in the kitchen because every so often the pump failed. We used those up, mostly to flush the toilet. We had a mountain of dirty dishes!

We were cut off from any news other than battery-powered radio. There was just one station on the air that night–the canned muzak radio station everybody hated, but they had a generator and broadcasted live at a radio tower on top of some hill. They weren’t canned that night. They were real and they took phone calls all night. For people who were alone in their pitch-black apartments, they were a friend in the dark.

I can’t remember how many days it lasted. We had thought that living so far from town, we’d be last to get power, but amazingly, PG&E restored electricity to the remote areas first because everybody was on wells and had no water.

As far away from the epicenter as we were, a lot of inconvenience was the only thing we suffered.

For me, the most hideous thing about the earthquake was the double-decked Cypress Street viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, where the top layer collapsed. The people on the lower level were trapped in crushed cars sandwiched in between the two layers. I can’t stand enclosed spaces–just thinking about that even today gives me the chills.

When I see how much devastation lesser-magnitude earthquakes have caused, I can’t imagine what a 9.0 quake would be like–and Japan has a nuclear crisis on top of all the other damage! I pray for the Japanese people. Jennifer and I are still reciting the heart sutra mantra for them, and lately my prayers have been going especially to the 50 heroic workers who are still in that nuclear facility. And I take time often to be in the moment and appreciate all that I have.

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4 responses to ““The Big One”

  1. I actually missed the “main event” in ’89. I was driving to the mall to pick up my new glasses, and when I made the right turn, the traffic light was working. When I got into the mall, everybody was out on the sidewalks, so it must have happened while I was on the little bridge. Having grown up in the 60s, my first thought was “bomb threat?”

    It was a long cold night. I remember that radio station you were talking about, broadcasting right from the tower, and there was another one on in town where they took phone calls all night long. I don’t think anyone was sleeping. About 5 a.m. somebody called, and with a great big yawn, asked if anybody knew where she could get a cup of coffee! I spent the night on my couch, because it was closer to the front door. I had my phone in one hand, a flashlight in the other, stayed fully dressed, shoes on, and had a Walkman type radio strapped to my pants, with headphones. I was on high alert, ready to bolt every time an aftershock rolled through.

    The next day we did open the office, and plugged a phone into the main board so we could at least get incoming calls on line 1, but hardly anybody of the patients came in, and without my trusty computer, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do, so I went back home.

    My power came back on 25 hours after it went off.

    • Yeah, I remember you talking about what a comfort that radio station was. Sounds like your power came on before ours; we were without power longer than 25 hours but got turned on before a lot of people I knew. I need to get a new Walkman-type radio just in case. Tried my old one out yesterday and the volume is so low you can barely hear it.

  2. Oh, yeah, Kate. I hear you. It brought back our Northridge Quake memories–I think it must have been in the early 90s, happened under our house, USGS collected the after shocks in our outback and absorbed them by satellite–a long, complicated story to share/to tell, but feeling so miniscule and long in the past compared to what’s happened/happening in Japan, feeling so bad for our global planetmates

    Will go back and deal with this when not so numbed. Right now am dealing with the approach of death in our own little family. They’ve just diagnosed my 89-year-old mom with very advanced brain cancer (remember “glioblastoma multiforme” from your transcription days?)It ain’t a mass of 18,000 victims knocked out with one fell swoop, just a little local microcosm of personal shock and grief, trying to comfort her, keep her free of pain, console my dad, her soulmate and life-love. Hoping just being there and helping out will make a difference, make life better, performing “tikkun olam.”

    Keep writing, Kate–you say it so well for all of us. Love, hare

  3. I am so sorry. I will be saying the heart sutra mantra for you and your family as well as for the macrocosm of Japan. Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

    Love you,
    Kate

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