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Finding, and providing, comfort in quakes

Sep 11, 2012 - By Walter Cook

I was already up by the time Melissa was jolted awake.

Going from a dead sleep at 3 a.m. to outright panic is easy to do when your three-story apartment building rises and falls over the course of a few seconds.

Melissa was surely already planning an escape out of my apartment building, which is a relic of a bygone era, when cramped two-bedroom condos weren't going for $700,000 each in my neighborhood. My building not only looks out of place among its upscale modern neighbors -- kind of like me -- it also doesn't appear to be ready to handle an earthquake.

Luckily, the earthquake that woke us registered a measly 3.3 on the Richter scale. But because the epicenter was just a few miles away -- in Beverly Hills -- the shaking was kind of intense.

Though she has spent her entire life in Southern California, Melissa has never been comfortable with the thought of earthquakes, even puny ones. With her active, sometimes dark, imagination, it's common for her to envision the worst possible outcome when a scary situation arises.

"It's all right," I said, embracing her in the dark, anticipating the wild scenes of devastation that were probably running in her head like a noirish newsreel.

"What should we do?" she asked.

I thought about that. Everything I know about earthquake safety seems counterintuitive: Stay away from exterior walls and windows and don't run out of a building. Often people are struck dead by falling objects while trying to make their escape.

"We'll wait," I said before explaining my reasoning.

The best thing I could do was continue the embrace. So I did. After a while, however, feeling I needed to do more, I left the bed and launched my computer. The U.S. Geological Survey's website confirmed my suspicion: The quake was small and was close. Using an online reporting form, I informed the USGS that the quake was felt in my neighborhood. I had done my civic duty.

Back in bed, I told Melissa, "At least we're together," should the night's trembler be a harbinger of something bigger and more dangerous. I had about two gallons of water and some snacks in my room. A minor emergency precaution to be sure, but at least I was somewhat prepared.

Later that morning, Melissa told me I was brave, especially considering I grew up in Wyoming, where earthquakes aren't a concern.

But I wasn't brave. I was just experienced, despite my origins: Over the past few months, I've woken up abruptly at around 3 a.m. on two other occasions, when two roughly 3.5-magnitude quakes struck off the coast of Malibu and in Marina Del Ray, both just several miles from my home.

Each time I was jolted awake by loud shaking, the brevity of which belied the potential for danger. Both times I wondered if another, larger quake would immediately follow. Leaving the building seemed like the logical thing to do back then.

But I stayed put. "You live in LA now," I told myself. "You can't just leave the house during the wee hours of the morning every time you feel an earthquake -- you'd never get any sleep." So I fell asleep -- surprisingly quickly -- each time.

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Plate tectonics -- the movement of the earth's outermost layer upon its molten liquid insides -- will never end as long as native life thrives upon this planet. It's the occasional sudden slippage

resulting from the movement of the planet's solid plates against each other that causes earthquakes.

Plate tectonics has a fascinating history. Billions of years ago, following collisions of massive chunks of matter and gravitational and other forces beyond imagination, the Earth -- like a spark heated by friction --was a molten orb floating brilliantly in the night. The outer layer of the planet has since cooled and now floats, very slowly, atop the molten interior.

But like a spark, Earth's brilliance will one day fade. In billions more years, as the Earth cools, the ancient remnants of friction -- that is, the molten interior that fuels plate tectonics -- will be no more. By then, the Earth -- if it isn't burned away by the expanding sun first -- will likely simply be a dead planet, like Mars, and humans will either have killed themselves off or found new lands to inhabit.

Despite my powerlessness against the forces of plate tectonics, I do find comfort in the fact that I'm fortunate enough to live in the United States, where, thankfully, there are government-mandated building codes that ensure the loss of life during earthquakes is kept to a minimum. Contrast that to poor, largely unregulated countries such as Haiti, where even small earthquakes can kill thousands.

The night the Beverly Hills quake hit, I had the added comfort in knowing that if the end was indeed coming, I was at least in the arms of someone I cared about.

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Postscript: Just hours after I finished writing this column, another earthquake hit Beverly Hills. It struck at midnight and registered 3.5 on the Richter Scale. My building swayed a bit, and I woke up. After uttering an expletive or two, I went back to sleep. Melissa wasn't staying at my place this time.

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Editor's note: Former Ranger reporter and Fremont County native Walt Cook is a business writer in Los Angeles.

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