Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Today's East Coast temblor registered at the seventh-floor facilities of Big Seagull as a noticeable office wobbling, a perplexing vibration not strong enough to physically disturb anything. It continued for something like ten or fifteen seconds. Several seconds after it stopped, everyone was gathering around the corners of our nondescript beige hallways to verify that it "wasn't just me." So there's the initial presentation of a rare seismic event. Judging from news reports the experience varied widely by what kind of building people were in at the time.

Back in January I read Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable, about the behavior that people exhibit during disasters and emergencies. Although the Earthquake of Ought-Eleven is clearly neither a disaster nor an emergency, our office behavior was immediately recognizable from Ripley's account. First, people touch base with each other. Next ensues an undirected, nervous, slightly giddy milling around. Someone opined quickly that if we were supposed to get out of the building, the building management would announce it over the intercom. (Passive, instruction-following behavior!) I stated to a small collection of people in the hallway that it wouldn't do any harm for us to walk down to the street, even if it were nothing; my boss said something generally approving of the idea and then said she was going back to her office to get her purse. (An impulse to collect belongings!) Although I could tell a fair number of people wanted to leave the building, no one from the area did, until I walked downstairs with two younger coworkers about two minutes later. (Apathy! Reluctance to alter the crowd behavior!)

Of course, despite having read Ripley, I hadn't yet learned where the emergency stairs in our office were. Others knew. We had a fire drill two Fridays ago, but instead of pointing out the stairs, the fire drill guy just collected us by the elevators and told us to learn where the stairs were. By "fire drill guy," incidentally, I mean a representative of some company the building outsources its fire drills to.

On the sidewalk, there was similar milling behavior, with everyone on their smartphones checking for info. The first news came from Twitter, naturally. (You know, back in my day, people just opened their car doors on the street and played the news radio with the volume all the way up.) Even before I'd walked downstairs someone had learned at least the Twitter basics, that there'd been an earthquake felt as far south as Virginia.

On the sunny sidewalk, where I loitered for ten minutes trying to collect rumors, I wondered darkly whether Washington may have been hit by a nuclear explosion, or how one would theoretically face a tsunami in midtown Manhattan. (My imagination just tracked unhelpfully to Deep Impact, of course, a movie almost as practically unhelpful as it is shitty.) It looked like a small percentage of the surrounding office buildings had emptied. Back in the office, I was moderately nervous and felt an imaginary sway to the building until about a quarter after three.

I still have no idea how you're supposed to react to an earthquake in Manhattan. (Coworker 1, afterwards: "Do you go underground somewhere? . . ." Coworker 2: "No, that's for tornadoes.") Slate's impressively quick-reacting Explainer says you're not supposed to do anything other than duck and cover. And sometime I need to re-read Ripley and, you know, actually apply the information this time. Today's going to seem like a quirky footnote in retrospect, but if this had been some kind of actual emergency it wouldn't have gone down so well.


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