The Anchorage Earthquake: A Lesson in Aftershocks

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The Anchorage earthquake of 2018 wasn’t my first rodeo, though it felt like it. I remember the Northridge quake decades ago while I was in college. I lived too far away to feel much except a jolt as I walked through the apartments at the University of California, Irvine. I remember the pictures, of course. Broken bridges and crumpled asphalt roads shock the eye and alarm the heart, even if one isn’t personally affected.

But this one frightened me. I should say terrified. I realize now that I have never been properly terrified. The car accidents I have been in, even a severe one, started and stopped too quickly to really do much except assess the damage. Childbirth brought pain but not fear. I was frightened of my ex and the consequences of leaving him. But fear and terror are two different experiences. The first drags on one, like a rock tied to one’s ankle while trying to swim in the ocean. The second is like a bullet to the heart.

I heard the earthquake before I felt it. The earth growled in the canyon behind my home while I lay in bed. I had only gotten about four hours sleep. I had decided to take my husband to work so I could have the car. Before I started the days’ errands, I thought I would catch a few zzz’s. The rumble puzzled me for a moment. Then the crash.

I expected it to be over quickly. A few tremors had already shaken the house in the two weeks we had lived in Eagle River. This one just worsened. I earthquakedidn’t quite know where to go. I stood with a sliding glass door, a giant bookcase, and a king size bed surrounding me. The cats were panicking and racing towards cover. If the bookshelf fell, and it was teetering dangerously, it would hit the glass mirror of my dresser. Somehow at the time, that seemed terrible. Meanwhile, I could hear glass shattering throughout the class as dishes tumbled out of cabinets, my china cabinet released its treasures, and décor shattered everywhere.

I wrestled with the bookshelf and the earthquake intensified. You never know what will go through your mind in a moment of danger. For me, I remembered my daughter, Emily, at the age of two, determined to eat all the children’s Tylenol. She had climbed cabinets and broken through childproof locks to get the purple medicine candy. The paramedics came immediately and administered ipecac. Her stomach promptly gave the perilous pills back and she passed out from too much stimulation. But the memory that came to me at the moment as I stood next to glass doors, holding back a solid bookshelf from which all the books were falling onto my head, was what the paramedic had said afterward.

Shaken, he told me about an earlier call that day. A woman had tried to stand on her glass dining room table to change a light bulb. The table cracked under her weight and shaved all the muscle, skin, and fat off of her hip to the bone. Somehow, the fright of Emily’s mishap became melded to the horrific accident of some unknown lady two and a half decades ago. My mission was to prevent the bookshelf, which was now heaving back and forth from falling onto the mirror. I thought that if that mirror shattered, I would be catastrophically injured.

I had tried to move this bookshelf before. Most of our bookshelves are pretty light without books in them. This one is not. I am actually unable to move it. I have to get a couple guys to do it each time. How I managed to keep it from falling, I am not sure. I knew enough not to get in front of the thing. That might have been fatal. Instead, I grasped the sides and thought to let go if I couldn’t keep it upright.

Still, the earthquake with my little house in its maw shook us back and forth. I thought the house would go down. I considered making it to a doorway. Everyone always says to go to a doorway during an earthquake. If I let go, the bookshelf would definitely go down and I would have to cross shards of mirror to get to the doorway. My mind’s eye created a picture of the whole house collapsing, me with it. My survival would be in serious doubt if that happened.

My mind’s eye is a roving one. It looks for danger where there is none and I have to rein it in. While I lived in Wisconsin, I had to drive down a steep hill to get to town. While I had no stop signs, cross traffic did. For a while, my trouble-making imagination sent me pictures of getting t-boned every earthquaketime I made my way down the hill. I could almost feel the impact and hear the screech of tires. My mind went to the trouble of creating an inner movie in slow motion, glass flying and metal twisting as my body lurched.

But those kinds of images are from the devil. I believe this, which is why I began to mindfully picture a safe crossing as I drove. Illegitimate fears nip at our heels unless we kick them in the teeth. But I wasn’t imagining this earthquake. Fear is a painful emotion. Adrenaline is exhausting and our bodies can really suffer from a full para-sympathetic nervous reaction. All my hair was on end, my muscles tensed painfully, and my breath was caught in my lungs.

Still, as a woman who prays, I don’t know that I asked Jesus what to do. I was just ready to hear His suggestion. I heard nothing which generally means wait. So I held on. The earthquake came to a slow stop, rather like a ride at a carnival. The books lay scattered on the floor and I stumbled over them to assess damages. Another quake hit, and I stayed in the doorway of my room. This one lasted a few seconds.

My living room and kitchen glistened with pulverized glass. Shards lay like daggers across it. My old cat, Pepito, was frozen in the hall, his fur all on end. I reached out for him but he scurried under the bed. I called Spencer and for the first and last time that day, my phone reached his. I think I have to change phone carriers. He was fine and told me not to go near the heavy bookshelves. I didn’t tell him it was too late for that.

I was afraid to go downstairs. I didn’t know where my other three cats were. I sat on the top of the stairs and cried. Logically, I knew that I was in a little bit of shock. Emotionally, I felt numb except for an urge to weep. Downstairs, two bookshelves were down and some of my fine china lay smashed on the floor, the doors of the cabinet open. Miraculously, some of the china made it ok, balanced just on the edge of the shelf.

I suppose that most people begin to contemplate their mortality at fifty. I don’t much. But for a moment, I thought I could die. I have never felt that before, through hardships and illnesses. Once as a nine-year-old, the refinery behind my home blew up and I thought it was the end. I was ready to go to meet the Lord. Now at fifty, I have people I love and who need me. I’m not really up for a violent death just now. My wrenched shoulder and back are memento enough.

The earthquake is not over. Forty smaller earthquakes, aftershocks, later, my heart still races when I hear the faint roar racing up the canyon. It echoes against the mountain and then my house shivers, as if in remembrance. But I know now that we all stand on the edge of an invisible precipice, held in place only by a God who gives us each breath.

 

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this, but I was in Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago. Here is my post from back then:

Hurricane Harvey: The Collective Trauma of Houston

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9 Replies to “The Anchorage Earthquake: A Lesson in Aftershocks”

  1. Alice, I live on a fault line and we’ve had pretty big quakes over the years. When moving house ALL my book cases and china cabinets get bolted to the walls which makes me feel much safer in a quake.
    My heart went out to you when I heard you’d had a 7. That’s BIG.
    Glad to read this and glad you survived even if all your china did not.
    I hope life will settle down again eventually. God bless.

  2. I can’t even begin to imagine! I am so sorry! Aside from the loss of things and the terror, the physical come-down from so many stress hormones being released in the body is very real. Praying that you are able to truly rest and recover well.

  3. Praying for you all. We experienced a very, very small earth tremor years ago, when we lived in Virginia. I thought that was awful. I kept saying, “Lord, make it stop, Make it stop.” Very scary. I am thankful we can call to Him when we are afraid.

  4. Oh I could feel your terror as I read this. Being from New York and never living anywhere but the East cost I have only ever experienced two VERY minor earthquakes in my life. Those startled me and they were next to nothing! I cannot even imagine how you felt. Praying you will have peace after that very horrific experience!

  5. Your words capture those terrifying moments so vividly — though I’m certain they do no justice to actually being there in the moment. Thank God you are okay – and that you were able to draw on His strength and peace in those moments of terror (not an easy thing for those of us who have a roving mind and imagination bent on fear). You are an exquisite writer!

  6. Thankful you weren’t hurt! And I’ll be praying for you and everyone else who is living in the aftermath right now.

  7. Alice, this is terrifying to imagine. You drew me into your experience as my heart was beating in my chest just to read your words. “But I know now that we all stand on the edge of an invisible precipice, held in place only by a God who gives us each breath.” What a powerful conclusion. We so easily forget we are but a wisp. May God bless you and hold you close.

  8. Sounds so scary, Alice! I’m glad you’re ok!

  9. Wow – that does sound terrifying! I can’t imagine so many aftershocks either. I agree with Melissa, you did a good job of drawing me in & recreating the experience, although I’m sure our imaginations can’t truly capture all its essence.

    I live in earthquake country. We’ve only had several rumbling ones – never causing any damage. Even then, they are unsettling – but do also remind me of how fragile our lives are & how our sense of control is just an illusion.

    Btw – they no longer recommend standing in doorways – I guess bc people’s fingers get injured. Now they recommend getting under large furniture… but I think that means stable furniture – not bookshelves 😉

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