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Travel Article

The "Nisqually Earthquake" as experienced in Seattle

by Anne Marie Maxwell

I have just had my second experience of a Northwest earthquake.

At 10:54 AM on Wednesday, February 28th 2001, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 struck Seattle and the Puget Sound. Its epicenter was about 15 km northeast of Olympia, the capital of Washington State, and at a depth of 49 km on a normal fault within the down-going Juan de Fuca plate. The earthquake was felt for hundreds of kilometers in every direction.

As an earthquake "veteran", I knew what it was within a split second. My fear kicked in immediately. I was struck by the paradox of wanting to run and knowing there was nowhere to go. So, I dove under my desk.

A part of me decided it would be a good thing to count the duration. Then I noticed I was saying "...12, 13, 14, 15..." so fast I was probably counting milliseconds and not seconds! I watched the bookcase behind me wobbling, and found myself repeating, "please stop, please stop". I feared the longer the quake continued, the worse it would get. And this earthquake seemed to go on for so long. Later estimates put it at 30 to 40 seconds.

Phone lines were jammed with people calling each other. Eventually I got through to my husband. In the meantime I switched on the TV. The local station was already in earthquake-broadcast mode, and remained that way for many hours. There was comfort in hearing the experience of others. I found the footage in the first few hours to be much more "relevant" than when it reached the nightly news and was repackaged in the usual formula.

Some people talked about the rolling sensation of the earthquake, feeling like there were waves beneath their feet. I didn't notice this so much. To me, the movement seemed rumbling and irregular, with more intensity about ten seconds into it. What I noticed most was the noise. From the beginning, the earthquake was accompanied by a noise that sounded something like thunder. I'm not sure what I was hearing, maybe our roof or the stress on nearby buildings.

I raced out with my camera to record some of the effects on my West Seattle neighborhood. I wandered around for more than four hours. As time went by, I could see the population mobilizing in response. The traffic increased to peak-hour numbers. Helicopters were circling, sirens were wailing and yellow tape appeared around danger spots. I have never seen so many dogs in people's yards. I guess owners had turned them out, hoping the animals would be safer there.

There was some damage to buildings in this residential area. The worst was a fire which caused the occupant to be taken to a hospital with smoke inhalation problems. Mostly, the older brick buildings were affected; chimneys toppling and facades sliding off.

I noticed I developed something of an eye for the damage. Yet, there were some signs that were more ambiguous. In places I paused to wonder, "Were these cracks caused by the slow action of plant roots?" Interestingly the media had to deal with the same sorts of questions. For many hours they were unsure whether a semi-trailer roll-over was earthquake-related. I hadn't thought about that before. In assessing earthquake damage, you need to deduct the "life goes on" aspect from the equation, such as house fires and heart attacks that would have happened anyway. Life just isn't as cleanly-cut as it can seem by the time it has gone through the process of being articulated by the media.

The local supermarkets were dealing with the mess of items falling from shelves. Our local Thriftway supermarket stacks its wine in wire racks standing more than six feet high. Many bottles of wine had been thrown to the floor. The worst of the resulting mess had been cleaned away when I got there, but the place stank of wine and the floor was still sticky. Thriftway stayed open, but closed most aisles and then reopened sections of them as the cleanup progressed. Safeway chose to close its doors while they did the cleanup, and then reopened later. Most other retail businesses appeared to stay in operation.

As I walked around our neighborhood, I could see how damage occurred in patches. These were "unlucky spots", places where you wouldn't want to have been during the earthquake. I got the impression that in a worse earthquake, the "unlucky spots" would expand and even converge, causing the "lucky spots" to be mere patches or not exist at all. How you come out of an earthquake seems to be about luck as much as following such safety rules as standing in a doorway. In my little inspection tour I discovered the "rule" of "not standing under a brick chimney". But who is to predict which way the bricks will spill?

Other people also were out inspecting the damage and we shared a few conversations. We inquired after the well being of each other's households, and neighbors hurried by to check up on each other. The consensus seemed to be we had gotten off lightly, considering the earthquake's magnitude. It is difficult not to read a warning into the event, rather than just see it as impersonal forces at work.

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