How Does It Feel to Be in an Earthquake?

A First-Hand Account from Los Angeles, CA

What you have to understand is we were already on edge. After all, we’d all just experienced the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit Ridgecrest the morning before on Independence Day.

Prone as we all are to do, we Googled “USGS California earthquake” to confirm what we’d experienced was indeed what we thought — not that there’s any doubt when it’s anything over a 6.0.

And we went right down the rabbit hole; I re-read about the 1960 Peruvian 9.5… the 1989 San Francisco World Series 6.9… the 1994 Northridge 6.7, which took place on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

And yesterday’s was on the Fourth of July. Guess we’ll be extra-careful on Labor Day. (And stay out of any cities with “Ridge” in them.)

Though I didn’t move to Los Angeles till 2006, I’d heard my friends’ “Where I Was That Day in 1994” stories myriad times. Indeed, at the debut of my latest tour last month in Hermosa Beach, I performed my “1994” scene, in which I call out 1994 as the greatest year ever. My friend, Samia Khan, said to me afterwards, “Um, so… maybe be careful with that year here in LA. Eeek.”

That and 1992. And 1965. (1849 was a good one.)

That’s Gold, Jerry!

Last night, at 8:19 PM PDT, the scene was eerie. My wife, Harsha, and I had all the lights off. We’d just finished Chapter Three of Stranger Things Season 3. And we could hear firecrackers in the distance. Fortunately, we weren’t on the roof; we’d climbed up there 23 hours ago to take in a panoramic view of the night sky in anticipation of the many planned fireworks displays. Moreover, we’d already gotten up from the couch to go for a walk before the neighborhood had fully darkened. I walked back to the master bedroom to grab my phone when Harsha yelled at me. I shouted back, “What??” and then felt the rumbling. I grabbed my phone and followed her as she threw open the front door and ran out into the yard.

Btw, there’s some dispute as to what you’re supposed to do in an earthquake. Just like more people are hurt swerving out of the way of a deer on the road as opposed to hitting one, I believe more people sustain injuries running than they do staying in one place. At UCB, we learned to “Follow Your Foot.” During a two-person scene, the rest of the scene partners have our backs against the wall and are ready to spring out and tap out one of the two performers. One of them will say a line and you’ll think, “NOW,” start moving, and then sometimes, out of stage fright, you’ll pull back. Don’t. Follow your foot. Capitalize on your instincts. Jump in the mix. Get in the scene.

An engagement photo. That’s not how we dress when we’re watching TV at home. (Photo Credit: Insun Youn.)

As Harsha and I have discussed, it’s best for us to be together, but as you can see in the photo, we’ve both crossed many the busy road in our day. You can only go when you feel comfortable; follow me, but only do it if you’re confident you can make it. So, since Harsha’s momentum and my own were already carrying us forward, we continued out the front door. We carefully stood in the northwest corner of our yard, far away from our gas meter and underneath no power lines.

The good thing about earthquakes is you meet your neighbors. We all spoke to each other on Thursday and Friday, calming everyone down and offering to lend a hand. Harsha and I went for the walk we had planned and came back inside, shaken. Pun intended. I threw back an Advil; both of us had a headache. That can happen from the shock.

Out here in California, you learn earthquake safety. Given my love of the cinema, the first thing I still think of is that crazy earthquake scene in arguably still the greatest comic book film ever, Superman II (1980). The first tip would be, “Don’t think of that crazy earthquake scene in Superman II.” It’s terrifying. The second tip you learn out here in the land of Hollywood is, “Superman II is not the greatest comic book film ever.”

It is the best comic book film ever.

ALL SHOOK UP

This is, I believe, the sixth significant one I’ve felt. The first true experience for me was in 2007, when I still lived in a large apartment building in the Wilshire Corridor in Westwood. Just like a tornado sounds like a freight train (more on that later), this sounded like a bunch of people were running down the hallway really hard. My roommate at the time, Amir, said fairly calmly, “Earthquake.” He was rather the anticlimactic fellow. In that case, you stay where you are. You aren’t going to make it out of a large building. Most of them are on rollers, anyway, so they sway. (If that isn’t the scariest safety precaution in history, then I don’t know what is.) You’re supposed to get under a strong desk or a table in case things start falling.

I went through three whilst living in Studio City, the last of which was Harsha’s first time. (Well, not her first time, but… man, the number of dirty earthquake jokes I just thought of… well, message me if you want any.)

One time, I was sleeping; I awoke and then just rolled over and went back to sleep. (I’d become accustomed, a mere few years later. A mere? Amir? Anyone? Get it? This thing on?) Actually, I was practicing the peak of earthquake safety: if you’re in bed, you’re supposed to stay in bed, provided there’s nothing hanging over you. I think the last thing I heard before drifting back out of consciousness was a line from “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers: “The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

Oh, and that time I shared the laughfactory stage with comedian Earthquake.

The most memorable time was when my entire apartment shook. I caught a couple of vases falling off my mantle. Now, that you’re not supposed to do. If it’s really that severe, you’re advised to take cover. It’s just that I saw them falling and wanted to save them.

“They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act… who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door.” — Scream. (That popped into my head. Yes, a movie I saw once, 23 years ago, which I couldn’t stand. That’s how my mind works.)

RIP, Wes Craven, though. Big up, Ohio.

The only other earthquake “experience” I had was 3 December 1990, when some fool predicted a big one was supposed to hit Cincinnati, Ohio. Didn’t happen. Growing up in the Midwest, we greatly feared tornados (and yes, The Wizard of Oz is obviously my equivalent movie), and since LA is a transplant town, I’ve been embroiled in an earthquake vs. tornado argument as often as LA vs. NY or 2Pac vs. Biggie or Magic vs. Bird or Edison vs. Tesla. To anyone who thinks tornados are scarier: Y’all out yo’ damn minds. Tornados look horrifying and are horrifying but at least you have some degree of admonition. You get a tornado watch (conditions are right) and then a tornado warning (one’s been spotted in your area) and you hear sirens and it’s all over the radios and televisions, and um, you can look out the window.

It’s Like Nature Whipped It Out.

Most people who know me know I’m obsessed with natural disasters. Every few weeks, I pull up tornado videos and just watch them kick ass. They’re so boss. A whirlwind of all that energy concentrated in one tiny area. It’s my dream to see one, though I’m not about to go join Storm Chasers or Storm Front or whatever those people are called. (I don’t think it’s Storm Front.) Ironically, I’ve actually been in one without seeing it. March 2008, Atlanta. I’d just gotten done crushing my NACA Conference showcase — some described me onstage as a whirlwind of all that energy concentrated in one tiny area — and we were all hanging out in my hotel room. Then… tornado watch. Tornado warning. Tornado! An urban tornado, at that. Extremely rare for one to come all the way downtown. An urban tornado isn’t much different from a rural tornado. Maybe I was expecting it to be blacker?

Anyway, earthquakes provide none of this warning. It’s not like they’re considered weather. Even if we had a 10-second heads-up, it would help immeasurably. You often don’t know you’re in one until a few seconds after it starts. You’re like, “What’s that… sensation?” It’s hard to tell whether it’s a feeling or a sound. The building pitches and things start to shake. “Oh! Earthquake!”

Your biggest fear is… what if I’m in surgery? What if the dentist has a drill in my mouth? What if I’m trimming my nose hair? So, yeah, there are a plethora of non-ideal scenarios. A few months after I arrived, my fellow Ohio-to-LA friend, Josh Yoo, and I were on the first floor of an enormous parking garage when he turned to me and said, “Times like this, boy, you worry about an earthquake.” I wasn’t worrying about that until he injected that fear into my heart in every vulnerable situation going forward the rest of my life. “Thanks a lot for that, Josh.” “Well, of all the people I know, you wouldn’t be a bad one to get stuck with.” What was he up to — doing his best Huey Lewis impression or working on the darkest greeting card ever?

LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE

At the age of eight, I joined the Boy Scouts of America. I stayed in it for a few hours. I saw all that stuff they wanted me to go sell and I was out. But the motto stayed with me: “Be Prepared.” Like Scar in The Lion King.

#1994

And I’ve always tried to be. Some of this I’ve learned from my Dad. He always keeps his phone charged, keys on him, ready for battle.

  • Last year, when my parents and I sailed out onto the waters of Sangam, a migraine headache struck me. I had almost nothing on me but I did have one pill of Excedrin Migraine, which I duly popped.
  • We bought our earthquake kits off Amazon last year and loaded them in our cars.
  • As soon as I buy a new phone, I purchase a case and protect it. I’m always amazed when I see dudes’ carrying around a brand new phone sans case. (I have a theory that these same guys don’t wear condoms, either. But I don’t have any intention of trying to prove my hypothesis.)

I hope everybody enjoys the rest of our Independence Day Weekend. (A great disaster flick, btw.) This is a bit dark (like Greeting Cards by Josh) and I don’t mean this insensitively at all, but ever since the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, I’ve appreciated how good we have it here in the United States of America. The 7.0 that struck Haiti caused north of 100,000 deaths. Almost the same magnitude in 1989 in San Francisco? 67. 100,000 vs. 67.

Now, to be fair, a 7.0 is 1.3 times bigger in magnitude and there’s 1.4 times the energy released; moreover, it depends upon the epicenter (point above ground) and the depth of focus (actual center below ground), but c’mon, dude. 100,000 vs. 67? That’s how much more advanced, more prepared, more resourced, and more equipped the USA is. My heart (and help) went out to the west side of the Hispaniola that day and I got down on my knees and prayed for Haitians for their loss but also for Americans for just how darned good we have it.

Alright, everybody. Be safe. We’re gonna replenish our earthquake kit and then head to Shake Shack. (They really should offer discounts today.)

Seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones has declared there’s an 11% chance another 7.0+ hits in the next week. So, it’s unlikely. But hey, Stranger Things have happened.

These Go to Eleven.

#Earthquake

Rajiv Satyal is a comedian. He resides in Los Angeles.

Ohio-born, LA-based comedian.

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