Monday, October 31, 2011

Shake, Rattle, Rock and Roll

Every region has its disasters. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Hurricanes in the South. Firestorms in the Southwest and the Republican congress in Washington DC. Since I live in the Bay Area, I'm supposed to be worried about earthquakes, which I confess, I am not. We are among the 90% of local idiots who are totally unprepared for The Big One. We don’t have an emergency water supply. Our stash of canned goods consists of smoked oysters, water chestnuts and anchovies. I’m sure there’s a flash light in the house somewhere, but I’m equally certain it’s out of batteries.

It’s easy to live in denial when you’re married to a native who thinks the best thing to do when a quake hits is jump into bed and get busy “so you can really feel the earth move.” In truth, we haven't had a single seismic event since we moved out to NorCal four years ago. When the Virginia quake hit last month, I was almost jealous. Gargoyles were tumbling off the National Cathedral while the ground here in the nation's earthquake capital remained calm as a meditating monk. You'd never know our place in the Oakland Hills was barely a mile from the Hayward fault.

With the Hayward to the west and the San Andreas Fault to the east, San Francisco Bay is the meat in a seismic sandwich. The San Andreas is a locked fault, which means the pressure between two opposed tectonic plates is equalized. If one of them suddenly gives, the consequences could be catastrophic. The Hayward fault, on the other hand, is a strike-slip fault, where two plates move past each other at a rate of a quarter of an inch a year, in a phenomenon known as fault creep. You can see evidence of this geological migration all over the East Bay.

Having lulled myself into a false state of seismic security, I was typing away in my home office. It was a glorious, sunny afternoon and I bitterly resented having to stay indoors and work. I was tweaking a hospital brochure when a sound like a distant door slamming jolted me out of my seat. Then, the shaking began. My heart upped its pumping. I felt a throbbing in my eardrums.Windows rattled. The dishes clattered in the cupboards. A decorative tin toppled off the end table.  The whole thing lasted about 20 seconds. If it's true that animals can predict earthquakes, then my dog is either an idiot or one cool customer. He was at my feet, gnawing on a rib bone when the quake hit. He never even looked up.

Within seconds, everyone was on Facebook. (OK, everybody over 40. Everybody else was on Twitter). "Did you feel it?" " We sure did." "That was a good one." "4.0, I looked it up."

No damages, no new cracks in the wall. Just Mother Nature reminding everyone one who's boss. But I had a decision to make because that night, we had tickets to see Paul Simon at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. The campus literally straddles the fault line and there was a good chance we would be experiencing aftershocks, or worse, another quake.

Built in 1903 with a donation from William Randolph Hearst, the Greek Theater is an outdoor venue with 8,500 uncomfortable cement seats. If you're smart and thrifty, you sit on the steep hill facing the theater. Get there early and you have a decent view from the lawn seats closest to the stage. Plus, you can enjoy a picnic along with the concert. Do your best to ignore the fact that the Greek sits just east of the Hayward Fault and has an official seismic rating of "very poor". (One block over, the Cal Memorial Stadium, where the Golden Bears play football, is literally bisected by the fault, which runs goalpost to goalpost. I think their seismic rating is "abysmal." Or maybe "horrendous.")

In the end, we took our chances. My husband would never have let me chicken out anyway. Paul Simon had a solid opening act, a very young folk singing duo called the Secret Sisters. They were a little too hillbilly for my spouse, but I enjoyed them. We were finishing our steak and gorgonzola salads when the Sisters left the stage. We sprawled out on the grass and got comfortable as we waited for the main attraction.

At precisely 8:16 pm,right before Paul and his band came out, the ground beneath our bottoms heaved again. We felt like fleas being shaken off by a giant dog. The aftershock, as we later found out, was a 3.9 on the Richter scale. The crowd roared and applauded, and five minutes later, Paul Simon arrived on stage. With a little help from Mother Nature, he rocked the house.

Find Berkeley on the map and travel down the red fault line towards Oakland. The area with a little yellow circle is about where we are - we have a head-on view of the Bay Bridge. I have no idea why the map maker created that circle, and I'm not sure I want to know.

Examples of "fault creep"

Extra Credit Reading:

More about fault creep

Bay Area Quake 101 I learned from my hair dresser that the entire U C Berkeley Geology Department lives in a section of the Berkeley Hills near Indian Rock Park. That's where the bedrock is, which means when the big one hits, the ground will not liquefy under your home.

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