The image above was one of the very romantic and memorable views of San Diego from my hotel captured on my last night in the city. Due to the fact that it was also my birthday, the events that took place that day will be forever unforgettable in my memory. Why? It’s because this scene was unexpectedly shaken by a 5.7-magnitude earthquake an hour after this photo was taken.
As I was packing my luggage and making preparations for my departure the next day, I was suddenly startled. I can only describe it as what sounded like a gigantic weight (perhaps several hundred pounds or kilos) dropping on the ceiling above me. It was a very loud and thunderous sound: “BOOM!”
Before I could even react to that, my attention was immediately confiscated and diverted when the entire hotel room in which I was standing — in addition to the entire building — began to slowly waver and wobble like a pendulum. Everything around me wobbled very rhythmically, but the sensation was unbelievably frightening as I had never physically found myself under these circumstances. It was completely brand new to me. Despite the odd, rumbling sensation, I took a few steps to the balcony window and looked outside. Downtown San Diego literally appeared as though it was vibrating. To date, I don’t think that was my imagination. San Diego was shaking below me and before me. I was aghast.
“So this is an earthquake,” I thought, looking about frantically. I am certain I silently swore a few expletives to myself immediately afterwards, but there’s no need to reveal those words here.
I attempted to apply logic to the situation. What should I do?
Considering I was on the 21st floor of a hotel with 22 floors, taking the elevator was out of the question, and there was no time to dart down all the flights of stairs to escape to the ground floor. I resolved to protect myself from recalling the (very antiquated) drills I learned in elementary school — I positioned myself in the doorway. (Yes, I know that’s not what we do today to protect ourselves, but bear with me. It was my first earthquake.) I still felt rather helpless. I did the only other thing I would have done anyway — I prayed (pleaded, rather) to God that my life was not meant to end like this, on my birthday no less. (I can humorously look back at this in retrospect, but at the time, it was the longest and scariest 45 seconds of my life). Apparently, had it been a 7.0-magnitude or more. . .well, it wasn’t, so there’s no need to elaborate on that!
After the wobbling concluded, I still felt very disoriented. Think about when you were a child and you would spin or swirl around, causing dizziness. Recall that even when you stopped swirling, you still felt that dizzy feeling continue for several moments or minutes afterwards. That’s what the aftermath felt like for me. Even though the earthquake had stopped, and the rumbling was physically over, it wasn’t over for me, mentally. I could still feel the rumbling. It was as though the earthquake hadn’t stopped within my psyche.
I exited my hotel room and accompanied a few people in an elevator who were chatting excitedly about what had just happened. I stood quietly, letting their voices enter my mind in order to eradicate the rumbling sensation I still felt.
When we reached the lobby, I was bemused at the sight that I saw. Why? There was a clear contradiction in behavior in response to the earthquake. One could easily discern between who the visitors were and who the natives were. The former, in which I would place myself, were all in a minor state of hysteria, while the latter were relaxed, sipping their drinks, lounging on the sofas, and poking fun at the visitors in the lobby. The latter were clearly native Californians, for whom the experience of an earthquake must have been like rainfall for anyone else. To them, it was literally as though nothing had happened. When I eventually made it to the front desk, I asked the receptionist whether I should be worried.
“Sir, with all due respect, this is California. This is a very, very normal occurrence here. Had this been an actual emergency, we would have announced evacuation procedures via intercom.”
I’m sure my facial expression upon hearing this was a combination of disbelief, amusement, and incredulity, because I know had this been a “real emergency”, the hotel staff would be announcing procedures — from at least three blocks away in an open space. Come on, now.
As I returned to my hotel room, another fellow whose room was not too far from mine started a conversation in the elevator. He was from Ohio and he, too, was visiting San Diego for a few days. It was also his first earthquake. I just remember his last words as we parted ways. He muttered quietly: “Man, I am never moving to California. Nope.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit, because who could blame him?
I had to force myself to calm down, but it took the rest of the night. The wobbling sensation was still in my psyche. I remember that I still didn’t feel comfortable in my hotel room. I decided to leave the hotel altogether for a while, hoping my wobbling state of mind would dissipate with a change of landscape. I walked into my auto rental, and stayed there for an hour while listening to music and watching children playing basketball in the adjacent public park. It was all so quizzical to observe because it felt like everyone had moved on already. I was the one who wasn’t over it. Alas, no one was injured. No buildings collapsed or were damaged. I don’t know why it took me so long to shake it off, but it took a while. At some point, when I was dozing off in the car, I had to tell myself to get up and return to the 21st floor. I resolved in my mind that if I slept, the sensation would wear off.
Alas, that was my first encounter with an earthquake. It was an extraordinary and remarkable experience, but one I do not hope to encounter again anytime soon, in retrospect.
However, I do live in Seattle — and have been here for 12 years — where we’re apparently waiting for a monster quake at any given time.
I suppose I won’t have to worry about “camera shake” that day.