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My Totally Inconsequential Earthquake Experience

For those of you who are used to earthquakes, you’ll just have to bear with me.  I live in Virginia and we’re simply not accustomed to that kind of thing.  I was in my thirties before I experienced my first quake, a lowly 3.1 or something.  And that was soon enough for me.  That measly little three-pointer would have lasted me a lifetime.  Think 100 by 100.  An interesting thing to experience, but I was in no hurry for it.

Again, I apologize in advance for my pure lack of earthquake experience.  I understand that this little shaky shaky we had here was nothing (in comparison).  But it still rocked my little world.

So, the technicalities.  It was a 5.8 on the Richter scale, according to the U. S. Geological Survey, and it was the strongest earthquake to hit Virginia since May of 1897.  It was centered in Mineral, which is about 40 miles from Fredericksburg where I was at work minding my own business.

At 1:51pm, I was working in our upstairs stockroom, behind schedule.  When the shaking first started, it felt like a huge truck was passing by – you know that feeling.  But it continued too long and then I recognized it as an earthquake.  Because I’m so experienced from the first one.  To be honest, I was mostly annoyed.  The mind does weird things, and I was thinking, “I don’t want this to be happening; I don’t have time for this!”

Perhaps I should have been thinking about safer places to stand.  That first earthquake prepared me for about a minute of light shaking, china rattling level, and then it would be over.  But this was different.  Right about the time when I was really getting annoyed that it wasn’t over, it got WORSE.  And loud.

A rough outline of what I was thinking:
“What’s that?  Oh, it’s another earthquake.  (I truly thought that, as though the last one wasn’t 10 years ago.)  This isn’t so bad.  It won’t last long.  I’ve been through this before.  I need it to hurry up and be over so I can finish this scan.  Okay, it’s going away.  No it’s not.  This earthquake sure is going on a long time.  It’s actually getting worse!  Darn it – I don’t have time for the mess this is going to create!  Wait, I don’t remember that sound.  That’s a bad sound.  I’m ready for this to stop now.  Wow, that’s kind of loud.  The shaking is still getting worse.  I haven’t been through this kind of earthquake before.  I don’t like this.  I want this to stop now.  Hmm, I’m on the second floor; that can’t be good.  Hey, that’s a metal ceiling above my head.  And it’s really kind of swaying.  Maybe this is not the best place to be…”

I don’t know what my face looked like, but I felt wide-eyed.  My emotions were wide-eyed and staring.

How can you really explain to someone else what you feel?  I told you what I thought, but what I felt was something different.  There came a moment when annoyance passed and concern took over.  From that time until the shaking stopped, I felt quite simply like a pair of eyes.  (That could walk, because I went down the stairs post-haste.)  I had a similar feeling when I saw Platoon.  I was absorbed.  I temporarily ceased to exist outside of the experience – I was a pair of eyes in a theater.

I wasn’t necessarily scared, as in truly afraid for my well-being.  I really didn’t think that anything bad was going to happen to me.  I didn’t feel like the building was actually going to fall down around my head.

But I was frightened.  I think it’s primarily the unknown factor, not knowing what is going to happen next. Not being a single bit in control.  I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen to me, but I was acutely aware that something bad could happen to me.

But nothing did and then it was over.

After that, my perspective took a turn.  Less eyes and more mind.  I worried about my sister, I worried about my house and my dog.  It’s funny how your mind works at times like these, because I didn’t really worry about anyone else.  I don’t know why I think of different people at different times; it’s like I randomly pick and choose who to be most anxious about.  I guess I was thinking about her being at home alone with a three-year-old and a baby.  But I don’t know.  Maybe there’s only so much room for worry – only enough for what you can reasonably deal with.  I never thought to worry about Steve or the boys.  And I worried about my parents only in relation to how they would be worried about us.

As for possessions, I worried about lost memories and keepsakes.  I thought about broken glass and things that can’t be replaced.  But driving home, I kept telling myself that things don’t matter.  And I believed it.

And now, sitting here and writing this, I can see that this experience was significant for me.  For the examination and (almost but never quite) understanding of self.  For the confirmation of what is important to me.  For the sheer exhilaration of a shared event.  Simply for being something that happened to me.

And yet…

Were their minor injuries?  Yes.  Was there damage?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in comparison to some of the things I have seen in my 41 and 11/12ths years.  Compare this to long ago events I can not forget, like a plane down in the Potomac, the space shuttle explosion, or a bridge collapse in California.  Compare it to more recent disasters in Haiti or Tuscaloosa, to the devastation caused by hurricanes and tidal waves and tsunamis.

I can’t compare.

My coworker brought up the people working at the Pentagon.  We knew it had been closed – as I believe much of the government had been shut down.  But she felt especially sorry for them because they would have had two kinds of fear.  They would certainly share with us that unsteady fear of not knowing what was going to happen next.  But some of them would have had a fear unique unto themselves – a fear of the known, of what has already happened.


It did create more work that I didn’t have time for.  Among other things, I had to clean up ketchup that smashed and squirted in every direction.  I had to clean up broken glass and gravy off the floor.  And that was pretty icky.

But all in all I’m thankful that this was for me, in actuality, a totally inconsequential earthquake experience.  That’s something I can live with.


Items of Interest:

Magnitude 5.8 – Virginia (U. S. Geological Survey)

Earthquake Rocks Virginia, DC, NY and Much of Eastern US (


18 Comments Post a comment
  1. I felt the earthquake, too. It’s amazing how long those few seconds are.

    August 24, 2011
    • I know! I read that it was 10 seconds!? Surely that can’t be right! It felt like at least a minute and a half – or longer – to me.

      And don’t call me Shirley.

      Whew (swipes brow). Sorry, had to let that one out.

      August 24, 2011
      • I loved how well you expressed what you felt and thought, and being a pair of eyes (that could walk)- great! I am so glad you were largely unscathed. I come from earthquake country, and this would have gotten our attention, believe me!

        August 24, 2011
        • Thank you, that was nice of you to say. I did picture eyes with feet as I wrote that and it made me smile.

          I can’t imagine having these often. It’s too nerve racking! There are messes to clean and uncertainty. It’s kind of an amazing thing, but I can live without it.

          August 24, 2011
  2. I know what you mean about turning into a pair of eyes, that’s how I remember it too! I was at the Clinique counter at the mall. In my memory, I have a view of the my hands on the counter as it swayed back and forth (at least 4 minutes), then switch to a view of the mirrored pillars swaying (another 4 minutes), then the mannequins dancing (about 1 minute), then looking at my daughter and saying, “Lets get out of here!”. Isn’t it awesome however to think that the EARTH MOVED! All the better that no one was hurt.

    August 24, 2011
    • Yes, I’m glad that it wasn’t bad. But I like your timeline better. It did feel like so, so long!

      And I am also filled with wonder at the Earth and what it is and what it does. It’s sad that people lose their homes and businesses and especially their lives. But we are like little ants crawling on the surface of this great big globe. It is like a living breathing thing that we walk on. That is amazing and beautiful and terrifying.

      August 24, 2011
  3. I felt an earthquake once in Yellowstone NP. I was on my daughter’s bed in her park ranger cabin and thought someone was banging on the window screen as a joke. She came running into the room and told me it was an earthquake. Yellowstone is actually a huge volcanic caldera, and therefore maybe not the best place to experience an earthquake. She said they actually have hundreds of small earthquakes there each year (which makes sense). I thought it was kind of cool!

    August 24, 2011
    • Yeah, I think it’s less scary and more “interesting” as I get some distance between then and now. And of course, ours was pretty minor. I guess if they have hundreds a year, they’d get pretty used to it and not think much of it anymore. Last night as I was writing my post, there were two or three little aftershocks. One was a bit bigger and I wondered for a moment if it was going to turn into something scary, but it just rumbled on past. I clocked one and it went on for about a minute, though. Or maybe that was just my nerves.

      August 24, 2011
    • Just this weekend my son was telling us that he would like to visit Yellowstone before it blew up and destroys ‘life as we know it’. I thought that was funny. If life as we know it ends, I don’t think we’ll be spending much time feeling sad over a lost vacation opportunity :-).

      August 24, 2011
      • You’ve got a point. But it’s still funny. Kids say the darndest things! They should should do a tv show about that, I would watch it.

        August 24, 2011
  4. I’m here in central Ohio and some people in the area felt the earthquake while some didn’t. I didn’t feel anything myself, but I remember in the 1980s when I felt an earth tremor- I was taking a nap and the bed shook, waking me up. Talk about disorienting!

    August 24, 2011
    • I think that’s one of the big things when it first starts is you’re disoriented and confused. I had heard that people felt it as far west as Ohio and WI. And even as far north as Canada. Pretty amazing!

      August 24, 2011
  5. Now who’s jealous? This girl. Wish I could’ve been home for it, but your retelling will have to satisfy my curiosity!

    August 25, 2011
    • Haha! I’ll admit, even though I don’t want to do that again, I would have been disappointed to have missed it. But you could imagine your ferry ride without the water and that would be fairly close. At least emotionally.

      August 25, 2011
  6. I go to school in Virginia and it took me a while to realize what happened. I was shocked that an earthquake could even occur on the east coast at all. I couldn’t believe it was 10 seconds either. After the earthquake, I had family members and friends calling me to make sure I was fine, since there was a city in VA that was hit badly. I was glad to learn that my family and friends back home were not hurt and that there was no damage done to the school.

    November 16, 2011
    • There’s actually a fault line that runs down the east coast (I guess obviously, since we had a quake and all), and I have felt slight tremors twice before. But, I was still surprised by it – I know it’s possible, but it just doesn’t happen. I’m 42, and have exactly 2 real memories of earthquake. We don’t get many natural disasters around here, unless you count hurricane season each year, and that’s just a side-swiping kind of thing.

      I think the scariest thing is that the phone lines get jammed after something like that. We are so used to instant gratification now when it comes to communication and information. To make that call and not be able to get through to the people you care about is a scary thing. I’m glad your school was okay and so were you!

      November 16, 2011
  7. stevesw #

    Your picture of the dresser is interesting. I was at work in Crystal City and had no idea what, if any damage there was to my house. When I got home I found one picture that had been displayed on a table shelf, leaning against the wall, now the picture was lying flat on the shelf. In another room, one framed, matted painting had fallen to the floor. The painting is now crooked in the mat, with a notation on the back saying this was the result of the earthquake. BTW, the tornado the other year, took out three threes next to my house. I am very thankful the Lord was looking out for me, both times.

    March 28, 2012
    • It was pretty scary when I was upstairs in a basically metal store room, so I was prepared for the worst at home, but it was barely touched. I heard other people talking about the water jumping out of fish tanks and whatnot. My Dad was at home and a large painting fell off of the wall and broke on the fireplace hearth right next to him. But like you, we were fortunate and thankful that so little damage was done.

      A tornado wrapped around my house about 8 years ago, too. It was high in the air, so the trees are still standing, but there are several with their tops twisted off. One smalllish limb punctured a smallish hole in my roof, but the water that came in caused half of my dining room ceiling to fall in later that night. Still, I wasn’t sitting there or anything, so what’s fixable is not a tragedy, right?

      March 28, 2012

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