Jewish World Review August 25, 2011 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5771
When in an earthquake, block traffic
By Dale McFeatters
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | My first earthquake terrified me and then immediately came as a great relief.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a two-room high school in Africa's Great Rift Valley. Any map will show you that the Valley is almost the perfect representation of what an earthquake-prone area looks like. The school had only a headmaster and two teachers, me and my friend, who had graduated in chemistry and taught science.
One day a government truck dropped off, without explanation, two large boxes. They turned out to contain science teaching materials but they were meant for schools two to four times the size of ours. But government ministries never make mistakes so we were left with a surplus of really cool stuff, including phosphorous, magnesium, some other stuff that I didn't know about and a large container of pure alcohol.
Taking only what we needed, we spent the evening drinking fresh pineapple juice lightly diluted with alcohol and setting off explosions in the front yard. For many of our students it was the high point of their science education.
That night, we packed away and locked up everything, making double certain that the phosphorous was stored immersed in water in a secure leak proof container.
In the middle of the night, there was a loud rumbling and the house was shaken back and forth and up and down. I kept a death grip on the bed, which was hopping up and down around the room.
"Oh, god," I thought. "We've blown up the school." The earthquake, which I imagine was fairly severe, did no discernible damage because in that part of Africa there wasn't much to damage. And all the science stuff was safe and accounted for, if you didn't count too carefully.
My second earthquake was Tuesday. It was a 5.8 magnitude temblor in southern Virginia that in Washington, D.C., lasted a few seconds, enough to knock some pictures off the wall, dump supplies off the shelf and spill everybody's drinks at the sidewalk cafes.
There were miniscule cracks in the capstone of the Washington Monument and, more seriously, some fallen finials from the bell tower and a cracked flying buttress at the Washington Cathedral. Some brick walls partially collapsed in the suburbs but brick walls are always partially collapsing in the suburbs, most often when an addled driver steps on the wrong pedal.
The first solid warning of the quake was a full 15 minutes notice given by the red ruffed lemurs at the National Zoo, which started "alarm calling" to one another. If you're moving to earthquake country, you might want to pack a couple of red ruffed lemurs, which are kind of cute as well as alert.
The Capitol, White House and congressional office buildings were quickly and efficiently evacuated, which always evokes this response in Washington veterans: "Hey, aren't you guys supposed to stay at your posts?" None of them is going down with the ship; they're not even going to get close to it.
Our office building evacuated quickly and orderly. My own personal office didn't evacuate at all because I couldn't see walking down 10 flights of stairs on arthritic knees. Besides, there was no way they were going to pin this earthquake on me. We're not allowed to keep explosives and liquor in our offices.
Looking out my window, I could see the sidewalks packed with evacuees looking up expectantly at their buildings. This is exactly what you're not to do because in a real earthquake the building would begin shedding roof parapets, stone cladding and plate glass.
By working through the earthquake, I planned to finish my work and slip out early but foolishly I had forgotten Washingtonians' automatic reaction to disruptions: They hop in their cars and go clog the nearest intersection, needlessly tying up traffic for hours.
For many commuters, that was the real disaster.
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