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Whole Lotta Shaking Going On

Updated on June 19, 2018

August 24, 2014 - Napa, California

For years, I've told people that though I've lived in California all of my life, I've never really felt an earthquake - the caveat being I recall a remotely unsettling feeling in 1989 after the Loma Prieta/San Francisco earthquake. I was 150 miles away at the time, and it was a 6.9 on the Richter scale with an IX on the Mercalli intensity scale (violent), but I could hardly count that as experiencing a quake.

The closest I'd directly experienced the feeling of a quake was going inside a touristy earthquake store on the Embarcadero where you can stand on a platform and feel the different types of earthquakes that have occurred through history, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (magnitude 7.8; X on the Mercalli scale).

On Saturday, August 23, my wife, kids and I hosted a party with neighbors in Napa and had a big festive lobster-fest. We had a wonderful time, celebrated some birthdays, and I was blessed to have one of the rare occasions where I had both of my teenage children there with us. We cleaned up afterward and I had left a counter full of glasses out to dry before we went to bed. We drifted off to a quiet, peaceful sleep.

I awoke to the sound of my wife screaming, coupled with a thunderous bang and a violent jolt in the house. Without a thought, I leaped to my feet, literally waking up in a standing position, in a pose ready for action, like SpiderMan. The house was still rocking and shaking, as if we were on a moving train. And pitch black. And in that hazy moment of awareness, it dawned on me we were in the middle of a true earthquake.

I took a couple of unsteady steps in the darkness toward the hallway and after several seconds, the shaking stopped. In the next room, I could hear the kids waking up.

"What was that?" I heard my daughter ask.

"We just had an earthquake," my son responded.

"Everyone alright?"


I tried the light switch - nothing happened. I felt for the door. There was only the dimmest of light filtering in through the open windows, but I couldn't make anything out. I shuffled my way back into the room and felt around for my cell phone. Unfortunately, I hadn't charged it the night before, so with 11% power, I used its flashlight feature to make my way into the hallway where I met my son, doing the same.

"Anything broken?"

"I have no idea - can't see a thing."

By now, all four of us were up and trying to feel our way through the house to see what had happened. It wasn't until we were out into the living room fumbling around barefoot that we realized glass was shattered all over the floor from the broken glassware left out to dry. The water cooler was on its side, water gurgling out onto the floor. Pictures were all knocked off the shelf, their glass covers shattered. Paintings fell from the walls onto the floor. Radio knocked off the shelf.

Using the dim cell phone light, I tried my best to sweep up the glass as each of us put something on our feet while we felt their away around the house.

Stepping outside the house everything was still, dark and serene. We heard stirrings from the neighbors and we called out to each other to ask whether everyone was all right. Most answered tentatively, since we knew we were alive and not physically hurt, but none of us really knew what "all right" meant. Few of us are at our best at 3:20 in the morning.

Before I had a chance to sweep up all of the glass, my phone died, moments after it occurred to me to send a Facebook post to family that we were all right. Not finding a flashlight anywhere, I was able to find a neighbor with one and walked around the inside and outside of the house, almost expecting to see massive cracks in the structure. The water meter had shifted. There was a sizable crack in the garage floor. But that was it.



Your mind goes into many directions when something unusual like this happens. I spring into action mode; suspending concern or fear for a later time. My wife was worried that the house was stable. My son was worried about our dog, who was in the living room after being banished from the kids room for snoring too loudly earlier. My daughter asked if it was alright if she could go back to bed.

Neighbors began to assemble outside - taking stock of each others' damages. Our next door neighbor's house was a mess - books, plates, glasses - everything seemed to crash down onto the floor. But their place was structurally okay. Another neighbor said he was sure his house was going to come down while it was shaking so violently.

One neighbor cleverly pulled out a French press to make coffee (we're all so reliant on our high-techy, but electricity-dependent one-cup coffee makers!) It was delicious, mostly because it was one of the first things to help make things seem more normal. It was still so early, so my wife and I went back inside the house, hugging each other, while my son wanted to sleep out in the living room hugging onto the dog, to make sure she was safe. My daughter was already asleep.

We lay there in bed talking and processing what had happened, and were still awake when the house was jolted by an aftershock at 5:48 AM. This time we were awake and felt it fully, without the filter of dream-to-awakening consciousness muddling our memories.

There is what happens directly, and then there is now what happens unfolds on the broader scene. We didn't know initially we were near the epicenter - we just knew how strongly we felt it. I'd actually thought it was centered in San Francisco initially. I leave it to the news media to tell the rest of the story. This is mine.

In the end, our house is in good shape, other than a widened crack in the garage floor, which is repairable. The area was without power and water for several days, which presented a host of other problems. At one point, I dumped a big jug of filtered drinking water into the toilet fill tank just to be able to flush accumulated waste.

Disasters are part of life. There are few places where one escapes the potential of some kind of natural calamity. An earthquake does make you feel small - you know the earth moves because tectonic plates shift, but you hope it's on someone else's watch.

Life is sweet; each moment either spent in painful apprehension or in harmonious veneration for the fragrant breath of existence that sustains us in every moment.


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