The "Big One" is the name of an earthquake and every Californian is waiting for it.
It's not just a big earthquake.
It's not the quake that will crumble your home.
It's not the quake that will devour your prom dress, your prom pictures, your prom date.
It’s not the quake that fells suspension bridges or Los Angeles.
It's not the quake that kills you.
That's just your average run of the mill plate tectonics.
The "Big One" is the earthquake that destroys civilization.
Earthquakes, tremors and aftershocks.
When you live in California, these are things you just accept and live with. Like a twelve-car pile-up or a five-year drought, they happen all the time. Earthquakes aren’t even impressive anymore unless they rate above a 6 on the Richter scale.
Earthquake emergency procedure is part of your training in grade school. Stop, Drop, and Roll was for fire drills. Getting under your desk, covering your head with your arms and facing away from the windows where the glass will implode was for earthquake drills. The escape route is the same for both. The terrible tragedy behind all the preparation and safety talks is that five pound school desks won’t prevent the falling rafters from crushing the life out of your body any more than Duck and Cover will save you from an atomic bomb. But hey, there just isn’t enough room for a class of thirty-three in the door frame.
Door frames. That’s something you learn about at home- how to brace yourself in them. If you can’t make it to a frame, you brace yourself in a small hallway. For the prepared household you know which hallway in your home is the strongest. You know the various escape routes and meeting points where the family can find each other in the chaos afterwards. You know that you never ever go back into the house to look for your parents because if the quake didn’t get you, then the aftershock most certainly will. You know that you should test to see if the door you want to exit through is hot because earthquakes are always accompanied by fire. You know to test the door by feeling the wood, not the knob. You know that if you can’t get out of a room by the door, that one of the windows is without a screen for the sole purpose of an easy escape. In fact, leaving by window is almost always the preferred option. You know all these things and you are only five years old.
If you don’t know these things then it’s because you aren’t a Californian.
This is not paranoia. This is what you do. This is rational probable cause and effect. .
There is also rational precaution- like the missing window screen. Californians have an innate sense of earthquake-safe interior decorating. Cabinets have doors so that when they spill over everything that was inside them is not now in your path to safety. Shelves are not built above space you frequently occupy. You do not stack your Xbox on top of your DVD player on top of your VCR on top of your TV. You do not hang heavy things above your bed so that they can crush you in your sleep during a night quake. You keep a flashlight by your bed because the electricity will go out. You also have a pair of shoes by your bed because there will be broken glass on the ground. That childhood game of “what would you save if your house was burning down and you have one minute to escape” is not so much make-believe as rehearsed calculation.
Earthquake preparedness is not something you really think about. It just is.
What is it like to be in an earthquake? I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be in the epicenter of a six pointer or more. I’ve never had to scramble for my life. I have, however, experienced more earthquakes than thunderstorms. I have been knocked to the ground before.
When your house isn’t reduced to a pile of smoldering ash and people aren’t dying, earthquakes can actually be a fair amount of fun. Distant quakes or insignificant tremors are usually only noticed when you walk into a room and your chandelier is swinging or your pictures hang crooked on the wall. –Huh, there must have been an earthquake. Obviously, the closer and larger the quake, the more intense the experience. Sometimes it’s just a jilt. Like when the roller coaster you are on hasn’t started yet but the mechanism is getting ready and it quick starts. A little jolt. The ground doesn’t move out from under you, but you are thrown out of step. Other times you hear the sonic boom. Other times it’s the rumbling. You hear that first before you feel the quake, the sound of the earth moving beneath the rigid superstructure of the city. It moves in waves so if you are in a tall building it begins to sway.
Most of the ones I could actually feel happened at night. Sometimes I would think that I would have dreamed them because I would just fall right back to sleep.
Whenever we noticed an earthquake, we ran outside to see how much bigger the space between the house and the concrete path (that was originally laid down abut the house) had become. A measure of physical change. It was neat.
Ironically, despite years of drills, I never experienced an earthquake at school.
I have also watched on television the devastations of Northridge, Mendocino County, Kettleman, large areas of Los Angeles and Big Bear. The destruction, rubble, fires, dancing electrical wires, police sirens, ambulances and cries for blood donations burned into my retina. And I remember thinking how very close they all were; how thankful I was that no one in my family had left home that day.
Let’s not forget the looting. After the quake is a period of fire, chaos, and five fingered discounts.
There are many people who can describe the experience much better than I. People who have been in large quakes or people for whom it was an unusual experience and so the details stuck. For me, it’s yet another prosaic part of life.
But I have strayed from the topic at hand. These are just the earthquakes that can kill you.
I was talking about The Big One.
The "Big One" is the earthquake that destroys civilization.
The Big One just doesn’t knock down your house. It demolishes the whole town, and the four states next to it You are on your own after this one, if you survive. There are no emergency crews and no police rescue squads. Don’t even hope for medical assistance. This is an apocalyptic quake. Sure, other parts of the state will eventually find you. Maybe. But it’s survival of the fittest, or most prepared, until that point. Self-reliance. Movie stars turned back-woods survivalists.
During my childhood, some scientists had pinpointed the date of the Quake down to the decade. It was supposed to happen during the eighties. Informational public lectures, meetings, leaflets, school lectures by the fire department, special sales at hardware stores, door to door concerned citizens. The news channels were always talking about it. A special city organization was started with the sole purpose of preparing the populace for The Big One. The fear of the Quake was everywhere. Above and beyond your standard preparation you were now expected to store provisions in your garage (we don’t have basements). A huge garbage can was for canned goods and other nonperishable food items (The Price Club made a killing). Another garbage can was filled with tools and medical emergency kits, flashlights and emergency flares and spare clothing. Next to these two storage units was the most important of all- your water supply. Bottled water and lots of it. In drought plagued southern California, The Big One meant the end of available water. Each family would become an evil water baron. I heard that some families were also storing firearms because you wouldn’t have the law to depend on after The Big One. Mine didn’t hold with that mode of thinking.
Life went on as normal. We played games and grew up. We kept large plastic garbage cans in our garage.
And we would whisper to each other on the playground about the Big One.
I’m not sure if the fear of the Big One still weighs heavy on the public. My feeling is that people grew tired of playing a cold war game with nature. I can’t say. I’m not there anymore.