By Vince Basehart
August 1 -- “It’s a five, five-point-three, and it’s
far away,” says Michael, the intern.
The Lens’ co-workers are providing real-time color commentary
on this week’s earthquake, as Santa Monica Boulevard undulates
beneath us like a big flag on the Fourth of July.
“It’s a roller, not a shaker,” says the computer
guy, as the blinds in the conference room bang inside the metal
window frame, and the whole, giant creaking office building continues
doing the hula for about twenty seconds.
We Santa Monicans do more than take these temblors in stride. Nonchalance
in the face of seismic activity is a point of pride. We are earthquake
Just a moment ago all of us had been listening to a Power Point
presentation, delivered by a hard driving, no-nonsense business
woman, the kind who, if she had lived in the ‘40s, would have
been described as having “moxie.”
Then the colored pie chart she is projecting on the screen starts
to dance. With the first tectonic spasms the woman becomes an ashen,
trembling, teary-eyed waif.
“Are you alright?,” asks our lab technician, another
unfazed Santa Monican, while the building continues to imitate Jell-O.
This is, after all, just an earthquake, the release of stored elastic
strain energy driving fracture propagation along a fault plane,
most likely of the classic strike-slip variety by the feel of it.
“I’m from Philly,” the terrified woman explains.
“Oh,” we all acknowledge in unison, nodding our heads
“Don’t worry,” our accountant soothes. “The
chances of this being the pre-cursor of a much larger quake are
actually quite slim.”
Five minutes later the business woman from Philly is still in the
We overhear someone outside of the conference room announce, “It
was a five point three. Chino.”
“Nailed it!,” exclaims Michael the intern, triumphantly.
By noon we’re all trading earthquake stories around the conference
table over catered sandwiches.
“Yeah, Northridge knocked me out of bed.”
“I was on the toilet when Whittier hit.”
“Santa Monica’s not on bedrock, see, so you really
feel it here. We’re built mostly on sand.”
“I’ll never forget Northridge.”
“You’re not really supposed to stand in the doorway
any more. There’s this guy who rescued people in the Mexico
City earthquake, and he says you’re supposed to lay next to
your desk. It’s called the triangle of life. Otherwise you
just get squashed.”
The business woman from Philly looks a bit sick.
There is inevitable talk about the “Big One,” the apocalyptic
quake which is supposed to flatten the LA Basin like the Hulk sitting
on a bag of potato chips.
“I don’t suppose there’s any kind of tsunami
warning, huh?,” asks the computer guy.
This doesn’t sit well with the business woman from Philly,
who stops in mid-chew to contemplate a wall of Pacific Ocean carving
a path up the street.
A few hours after the earthquake, the business woman from Philly
has finished her presentation and can smile about it now. As she
packs up her laptop she says, “I guess I’ll always have
my California earthquake story. But I’ll still take a tornado
She’s heading to LAX, back to Philly where the ground doesn’t
Ask Kate Hutton, the Cal Tech seismologist who shows up on the
TV moments after any Southern California tremor, and she will remind
us that any place in the world can have an earthquake.
There are rifts and faults all across the earth’s surface,
each which could rumble and shudder at a moment’s notice.
But quakes are so very…Californian. They are our birthright.
So is electricity. Just as the business woman from Philly gets
on the elevator and the doors close, we all hear a whoomp followed
by a boom! A transformer has blown and all the power goes out. Shouts
of panic are heard throughout the office suite.
The business woman from Philly will be stuck in the elevator for
the next hour.