All Shook Up – Apologies to Elvis ~ earthquakes I have experienced ~

How much quake would an earthquake quake if an earthquake could quake me?

Nature is rife with unexpected surprises. Since I moved back into this part of New Jersey in 2010, I’ve observed some surprising nature happenings, not the least of which are several earthquakes. A Bald Eagle occasionally perches in the trees at the rear of our apartment complex, patiently waiting to successfully steal fish in mid-air from a hard-working osprey. A mother mallard duck brings her six ducklings to eat the seeds and nuts on the ground near my bird feeder. The daily, wandering turkey population features two females and their broods. Singly or jointly, they shepherd their flocks of up to young ‘uns. Three generations of turkeys are represented – the moms, several teenagers, and the rapidly growing babies. They like my feeder area and I like turkeys. After all, they do chase the squirrels. Moreover, as I explained to a neighbor, “I forget the summer heat going on and on. And on.”
            Nature, as we are all aware, does not deal solely with living things. Geologic and phenomena weather phenomena are part of the natural world, and their impact is often unexpected, unpredictable, and unnerving. Yesterday, a public television featured how fractals can mathematically predict what were once considered the vagaries of that natural world.

Earthquakes used to be considered unpredictable, but the advances of prediction science are slowly changing. However, the recent August 23rd quake, stretching over seven hundred-plus miles along the Eastern US, was neither expected nor local. Most people were shocked by the shudder. I knew it was not of local origin. This one originated in Virginia, almost three hundred miles south of us. After it was over, I started questioning folks around here about the earthquake. The most common reaction was, “It was totally unexpected here where there are no earthquakes.”  

We now reside in New Jersey, some twenty six miles east of Philadelphia. Much to my surprise, most people have simply never been aware of the slight earth movements caused by the Philadelphia fault line. Actually, the numerous Philadelphia fault line quakes are too numerous and too weak to attract attention. These Earth movements regularly cause minor tremors, never registering more than three on the Richter Scale. During the past forty years, I’ve experienced more than a dozen which originated from that Philadelphia fault. Our August trembler registered close to 5.8.

Not counting dozens of quakes I experienced during one week in Hawaii, I’ve been involved in an amazing number of minor tremors from east to west and north (Alaska) to south (Appalachian Mountains) in the United States. I even experienced an earthquake near the Mississippi River. In fact, I can no longer recall the dates of the majority of those occurrences. Most of them were less than four on the Richter Scale. Some the quakes, however, do stick in my memory because of the reaction of the people around me..
Back in the sixties, we collided with our first major earthquake – inWashington,DC, during a three day weekend visit from West Milford,NJ to the nation’s capital. Since our only experiences with seismographs had been at the American Museum in New York City, where the machines sat quietly, doing next to nothing, we wanted to see a “better” working seismograph, preferably during an earthquake. What did our parents always say? “Be careful what you wish for.”

So we wended our way to the first floor of the then rickety old USGS building near the Mall. In those days, neither my husband nor I had any firsthand experience with earthquakes. In retrospect, our ignorance was just short of appalling. On the street outside, trucks rumbled by, blowing their horns and shaking the small structure.

The visitor desk officer told us the seismograph was indeed more sensitive than the one in Manhattan. “However,New York City has few earth       quakes. Their seismograph works fine. It just nothing to do.” He smiled as he broke the news to us.

We found the machine and watched the seismograph needle indicator unexpectedly and explosively begin to trace the familiar, rapid zigzag pattern showing the intensity of the Richter Scale on the slowly rotating paper roll. “It doesn’t work,” my husband declared. “There are trucks going by and setting it off. Look!  An eighteen wheeler is registering over six on the Richter Scale.” The famous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was a six, by the way.
            We laughed uproariously and I began telling him how I would teach my 6th grade students all about the “fake” after we returned home. Out of the blue, an official voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “Please look at the seismograph on display. You will be able to see an earthquake happening in Iran right now. The quake registers between six and seven on the Richter Scale. The waves are travelling through the Earth’s interior all the way across the world to us.”

Yes, we were impressed. And then, the seismograph started to shimmer with somewhat different lines. “Trucks again!” we giggled.

We laughed. Another announcement crackled on. “Please note the new lines on the seismograph. We are actually having a small quake triggered by the one in Iran. It is suggested you leave the building at this time.”

We didn’t laugh as we left.

After I returned home, I was determined to learn everything I could about earthquakes. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. It was to be a never-ending love affair.
            Earthquakes, I would soon discover, were not to be trifled with. In the late 70’s we moved to the NJ Audubon Society’s Rancocas Nature Center in Mt. Holly, where we lived and worked. By 1980, I was teaching in Mt. Laurel. My husband remained a NJ Audubon employee, so our living quarters remained on the second floor of the three story building. The Westampton/Mt. Holly area was a community of which we became a part. Earthquakes were furthest from any of my consciousness. This was South Jersey. A/K/A The Flatlands. The NJ Pine Barrens were a few miles from our location.Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, was a scant hour and forty five minutes to the south and west of us.

            Let us pay a visit the Rancocas Nature Center in November,1988. We were entertaining a small group of friends in our upstairs quarters when our friend Kay’s quiet old dog abruptly began to howl and whine.
            Rapidly, a series of strange events assailed our eyes and ears. Through the open windows, we were amazed to see dozens of flights of birds, ever increasing in number, rising in ever widening circles which darkened the skies over the fields and forests.

            My cat, who had been uncharacteristically and frantically racing from room to room during the previous half hour, jumped onto the dining room table, faced west, and growled fiercely, her hair standing on end. Our friend’s dog, who suffered crippling arthritis, and was tied to a tree on the ground a story below, hauled himself painfully to his feet, faced in the same direction as the cat and began whining uneasily.
              Suddenly a series of small explosions rocked the building and brought all of us to our feet.  It was hearing scary thumps as the brick and concrete walls of the four story building shook. The furnace in the basement actually raised up and fell back.
            The animal clues immediately told us what we saw and heard: an earthquake. An Earthquake???????

Immediately, I called Burlington County Emergency Call Center, and my neighbor from across the road, who worked there, happened to answer the call. “You guys just have an explosion in your basement?” I asked.

“What the hell is going on, Liz? How do YOU know? There’s explosions all over town”, he said with real fear in his voice. “What the *#%% is going on?”

“It’s an earthquake, dear. An earthquake.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. About three on the Richter Scale, I would think.”

“I’ll put ya on speaker. Tell everyone and me again.”

I repeated my statements.

Sounds of disbelief spread through the Call Center. Then the supervisor, who was a casual church buddy, got on the line. “Earthquake?!!” he shouted.

A series of small explosions resounded through both our buildings. The dog howled in earnest. The cat screamed and ran to the open window to jump outside and onto a nearby tree from the second floor where we were located.


“Why the hell didn’t you warn us?” he demanded.

“It never occurred to me. Hey!Philadelphiahas earthquakes? You’re a native here, didn’t YOU know?”

“Oh my God! Liz. Oh my God! Hundreds of people are calling in!”

“Let me call my contact from the Academy of Natural Sciences at home. I’ll have him call you.”

“Hurry!  We’re mobilizing the Fire Department and Rescue Squad throughout the area.”

We heard the sirens go off all over the district. Within minutes, I was on the line to the geologist from the Academy.  I said, “Hey, this is Liz …”

Without missing a beat he volunteered the following “Of course it’s an earthquake, Liz.”  

He laughed heartily as I stammered “How the heck do you know?” Then he proceeded to explain the technical details to me.

            The Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey area has registered earthquakes since before historical times. Most of the tremors hover around 2.5 to 3.0 on the Richter Scale.

I interrupted him. “Look, just call the Burlington County Call Centerand ask for the supervisor. He’s waiting for your call. Here’s the number.”

“Will do, and I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

He did, and then filled me in on the long history of earthquakes in the Eastern United States.

Finally, the tremors stopped, but there were objects all over the floor, and minor landslides into Rancocas Creek. Our cat disappeared for two days. The dog, shaking and trembling, had to be tranquilized. The birds eventually returned to their habitats, but twittered far into the night.

Chapter Two
Go West Young (Wo)man

            Afterwards, we had one thought in mind. We wanted to experience an actual earthquake. What better place than the Presidential Range of the Pacific Cascades?

What is the question about wishes? Nonetheless, on a summer day in the late eighties, during our first trip to snow-covered Mount Rainier in Washington State. The parking lot perimeter had huge plow drifts which still hadn’t melted. Then we headed to the visitor center. We were amazed to see a working seismograph actively registering earth tremors within the volcano, ranging from two to six on the Richter Scale.  Tremors were felt through the concrete floor. From time to time, the earth movements were accompanied by a vibrating, low bass hum. Much to our surprise, we learned Mt.Rainieris an active volcano in a chain of active volcanoes, and, furthermore, is considered the most dangerous volcano in the lower forty-eight states. Keep in mind there are other dangerous active volcanoes in this mountain chain, which include Mt.Bakerand Mt.St. Helensin Washington and Oregon and terminate with Mt.Shastain northern California. Rainier, of course, is the Chief Honcho. I would spend the next four decades paying Rainier frequent visits. It is a trip which is never tiring.

During the decades between 1973 and 2009, I visited many other volcanoes and fault lines. I was able to photograph seismic waves crossing and crisscrossing the Salton Sea, feel the tremblers along the San Andreas Fault, be aware of an Earth shake along the Mississippi, and tune in to the rumblings along parts of the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. I felt the familiar Earth movements in Costa Rica, Mexico, Africa, Australia, and China. Luckily, none of these events were strong enough to be dangerous.
            Then, in 1986, friend Mary and I went to Alaska for a three week walking tour. Our first night in ‘Anchorage, on July 5th, was not to be our first night!  As we registered, I asked the desk clerk if we could safely walk to a nearby drugstore after dark. She put her hand on her hip, and in the inimitable Alaskan accent, said, “Honey, we don’t have no night!”
            “After our exhausting trip,” I giggled, “brains are not part of my makeup.”

It was such a delightful, large, well-appointed room! We noted there were no decorations such as pictures, knick-knacks, glass ware, ash trays, or baskets. How peculiar. We didn’t bother to unpack, just fell into our beds and went to sleep. Around three in the morning, I awoke to a rumbling and shaking. “Earthquake!  Mary! Wake up!”
            Mary didn’t move.
            All the furniture was shaking and snaking across and around the large room. I tried several times to wake her, and after ten minutes of strong tremors and crackling of walls, windows, and doors, it was silent.

Mary slept on.
            Wearily, I pushed my bed back to where it belonged and fell asleep.
            When the alarm, which had fallen to the floor, went off in the morning, Mary was still in her bed angled onto the other side of the room. She couldn’t find the clock to turn it off as she sat up and looked at me. “All right, wise ass, what did you do?

I explained. It was not the last bed ride we would experience during our three week stay. During our hikes throughout the state, we often came to tsunami warnings prominently displayed on shorelines, glaciers, and roadways. In the parks, earthquake warnings were also prominently displayed. During quakes, it was often difficult to keep the automobile on the road. One of our most amusing experiences was watching school decorations being shaken off a school building just before a sports event. And, it should noted, the Alaska Railway trains would not cross bridges during earthquake events.

It was an incredibly wonderful, adventure trip!

Go West, Old Lady … Don’t Quake in Your Cowboy Boots

            Living fourteen years in Phoenix, Arizona opened up a whole new geologic world for me. Thanks to my own inquisitive nature to explore, a dream job at the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum that mandated I travel to all six corners of the Arizona to do programs for rural and remote schools, and some of the world’s greatest scenic spots within twelve hours automobile travel time of Phoenix, I was in (western) heaven. It was not surprising there were earthquakes in parts of Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and even Mexico, and Texas. The biggest shock, so speak, were the tremors that struck Phoenix with amazing though sporadic regularity. Actually, Phoenix has more earthquakes than frequent heavy flooding, dust storms, and snowfalls!
            The first few tremors, when I first arrived and settled in, didn’t quite penetrate my consciousness. “Heavy truck traffic and ubiquitous heavy construction vehicles, shake the place up,” I thought. I worked at the museum on Saturdays as a volunteer for several years, and one Saturday morning, arrived at my job at there and mentioned my thoughts about traffic to my boss.

            Susan smiled, and her answer floored me. “That’s not heavy trucking, Liz. It was an earthquake.”

            She then proceeded to show me the maps of the fault lines, and records of the quakes, including some rather strong tremblers which had caused damage in various degrees of severity.

            What a thrill! I actually lived in an active earthquake zone, and from then on, happily rode out the storms, so to speak. An occasional quake at the Grand Canyon was a thrilling event, of course, but quakes in Phoenix were special. The quakes registered between three and five on the Richter Scale, and though most old-time residents were aware enough of them to ignore the phenomena, newcomers were in the dark. During the 1990’s the Arizona population increased dramatically, and the media catered to the growing numbers of newcomers. Earthquakes simply enough, blew them out of the water.

            During my fourteen years of poking throughout the state, I was able to enjoy unexpected rockfalls, disturbed roiling waters, cracked highways and dirt roads, and slight highway movements as part of the cachet of Arizona. There were even two schools where I was presenting a program where we underwent an earthquake evacuation drill.

            However, the quake that really sticks in my mind happened late one evening during 2005, around ten p.m. At that time I lived in a so-called patio home development with about a hundred families. From six to ten homes were grouped with common walls. My cats abruptly went ballistic – chasing through the rooms, attacking the patio doors, and standing on the dining room table. Hmmm, I thought to myself, earthquake is coming.

            Within minutes, it struck. The two animals on the dining room table froze stock still then faced what the direction of the epicenter of the quake, about a hundred miles to the west in California. As a dozen or so shocks rolled through, it sounded as if several heavy persons were chasing each other across the flat roofs. The crashing sounds were much louder than the usual cat chases and occasional teen races we were used to. Within minutes, I heard shouting and screaming outside. As I went to investigate, I heard a terrific crash on the sidewalk. Outside, most of the neighbors – all of them new residents in Phoenix- were in the street.

            My neighbor, Bud, and his wife were having a physical tussle in front of their patio house, two doors down.  She was screaming at him. He was shouting and waving a loaded six shooter in the air. “I’m gonna kill the sonofab!” he screamed. “I’m tired of these kids running on the roofs!”

            I rapidly explained to the rational neighbors about the earthquake, told them to tune to the Civil Defense radio station, then went to talk to Bud.

            “It’s not kids or cats,” I said.

            He repeated his ravings.

            Trying to keep my temper, and not succeeding, I repeated my statement a half dozen times, being louder each time. He wasn’t listening. Nor would he stop screaming.

            Finally, he pushed his wife away, and went to pick up the ladder which had caused the loud crash. In total frustration, I walked up behind him. “Give me that #$)(*0 gun, NOW or I call the cops, you idiot!” I demanded in what can best be described as a low growl. “It’s an earthquake you fool. It’s an earthquake. The EARTHQUAKE is making the roofs shake with each tremor.”

            Bud stopped cold.

            “An earthquake? This ain’tCalifornia, Liz.”

            “No, you doofus. But that’s where it originated. Give me the gun. NOW.”

My growl dropped to a hoarse whisper, but still he heard me.

Emergency civil defense sirens went off all around town. Several of the neighbors brought out their portable radios tuned to the disaster station, and we listened to the reports coming in. There were widespread avalanches, and Interstate 17, the main highway between Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff was closed because of earth and roadway movements, landslides, and earth cracks.

Quietly, he handed me his gun. I unloaded it.

As a police car came shooting into our development, I tucked the weapon into my waistband. The officer shouted at the crowd, “Everyone ok?” We gave him the high sign, and he sped off.

Silence. Dead silence.

People began inundating me with questions, while Bud just stood there, taking it all in. Several of us went to comfort his wife. After she calmed down, I patiently explained about Phoenix earthquakes for the next fifteen minutes. The neighbors, who had recently been complaining of heavy trucks on the main street outside our community sloshing the water out of our community pool, were stunned it wasn’t the trucks, but regular Earth tremors.

One of the men looked at Bud, and said, “It’s worth the potential danger just to hear you shut up.”

Quietly, I handed Bud his weapon, as people began to returning to their homes.

Ever the wise guy, Bud said, “You’re not allowed to hide a gun in your clothing. That’s illegal.”

Throwing him a look which would have turned Medusa to stone, I actually – Lord help me! – snarled. “I have a hidden weapons permit, doofus.” Then I stalked off for home, followed by thunderous applause.

There were two unexpected repercussions from the incident. One: Bud, accompanied by his wife, came over to where a group of us were sitting in the community park the next night, comparing the newspaper stories, television coverage, and stories shared with friends and family. He profusely apologized.

Two: Six weeks later, his wife sued him for divorce. He retained custody of his gun.

Earthquakes can really shake people up.


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