Earthquake, Virginia Style

We don’t have earthquakes here. The good solid east coast… Not so much. I learned, in 2003, that Virginia sits on a fault line—who knew?

People still mention the quake of ’03. December 2003. Everyone knows where he or she was, what they were doing. I was with a homebound student, close to the epicenter. My Riverside Shakespeare rattled off the table. My student wanted to go find his shoes. I dragged him out of the house saying, That’s not a helicopter! We must get outside; it’s an earthquake.

I was inside longer than I wanted to be. My back hurt for days from the shaking. It was a 4.5. I have blogged about this in the past, most recently in March. JL and Ian thought the quake of ’03 was the water-heater blowing up. They remained in the house, thinking, Hmm, maybe the water heater is blowing up. I have been relentless in my admonitions on this topic: in case of earthquake – or water heater explosions – get your ass out of the house.  Immediately. Forget about shoes. Earthquake = be outside. Period. No discussion.

I review this strategy each time there is an impending natural disaster. Tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes. There are somewhat different instructions for each. I was a Boy Scout, ever so briefly, but I did learn one important thing—be prepared.

Yesterday, Ryan was at Chris’ house—Chris’ old house that creaks and has cracks in the ceiling here and there. Jamie was in her car and missed the whole thing. She was on her way to pick Ian up. Ian was home alone.

I herded people out of the center. We didn’t move far enough from the building. But we were outside, without our cell phones, and in one instance without shoes. But we were safe.

The windows stopped rattling. The vibrations in the hand-rail stopped and we meandered back in, shell-shocked. This is Virginia-by-God. We don’t have earthquakes. And then, everyone reached for cell phones. And there were none. We all had full service. No calls could be made. Dead air. Landline. Dead air.

Ian was home alone.  I told myself, he knows what to do. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200—get your ass outside!

I got through to Chris first. He had been on Xbox Live. All of his friends were echoing his words – what the fuck is that? All up and down the east coast, milliseconds apart. They actually stopped playing, briefly. They did keep Live up and running—which was good, because there was no other reliable means of communication. Everyone at Chris’ house safe.

I continued making calls. Ian. Jamie. JL. No signal. Signal, no service. If you’d like to place a collect call to a cell phone…


Later, I learned Ian was on Facebook during the quake. Plato, our Solomon Islands Ecelectus parrot, flew to the floor. The house shook. Books fell from shelves. With my voice probably echoing in his head, Ian ran, barefoot, from the house onto the back deck.

Jamie was pulling into the driveway.

Ian yelling, There’s an earthquake.

Jamie thinking, Ian has lost his mind. What the hell was he doing standing on the deck yelling, Earthquake! We’re having an earthquake!

Plato, alone on the floor, surely feeling abandoned.

Ian stood on the back deck. By the time Jamie reached his side, the shaking had stopped. She was incredulous.

So what did they do? They comforted Plato, returned him to his cage, picked up the books, and went about their business. Ian checked his facebook and was shocked that his friends had been posting all the way through the earthquake—they didn’t get out of the house. Really Ian? Think back to the last earthquake. The only reason you got out is because I have drilled that into you! And you only went as far as the porch. You know, the porch set on corner posts. If the house was going to crumble in the quake—the porch would have gone first. Not really good enough. Better. But lots of room for improvement—like the whole yard’s worth of room.

But they went about their business. They had a small advertising job to do for me. No phone call to mom, no we’re ok… Nope.

Clearly, my earthquake instructions need to be expanded. Get your ass out of the house. Get on solid ground—away from the house. And then, as soon as possible, call your mother and check in.

It was after four when I finally got through to JL. He had been working where there is never cell phone service. At 1:51 he was 30 feet up a ladder that was leaned against a chimney on a 200-year-old house. He told me this as I was looking at picture of damage—every picture had crumpled chimneys. I was nauseas.

So, we will have a discussion here about earthquake safety. Chris and Ryan stayed indoors. Wrong. Ian didn’t leave the porch. Less wrong, but still wrong. John scrambled to the ground and scurried away from the trembling old house. Right.

And hopefully, FEMA, emergency services, and phone companies learned something. Our communication systems are woefully inadequate. FEMA announced that we should text and not try to make calls. Really? My phone has 14 text messages that would not send.


What ifs loom large. If people had been hurt there would have been no way for anyone to know. They’d have had no way to contact help or loved ones. This communication failure caused undue anxiety—and could have been catastrophic. The inability to communicate with people I love was more frightening the actual quake. Wake up, Sprint! Verizon! AT&T! Wake up, FEMA! Everyone from the Carolinas to Rhode Island felt like my poor parrot yesterday—abandoned and alone, unable to communicate their fears to the people they care about most. And that’s Not okay! Fix it!