The Semi-Spectacular Chino Hills Earthquake of 2008 will go down as a friendly reminder of how foolish we all are to be living here. The 5.4-magnitude, mid-morning jolt was not particularly large in the historical scheme of Southern California seismicity and remained mercifully far from the destructive result of its more famous cousins, but it arrived powerfully and prophetically. How far are we, really, from a far more nightmarish comeuppance, a day we know is coming but deftly push from our minds?
From my stall-centric vantage point in the skillfully retrofitted buildings at USC, the quake lasted three to five seconds. Other areas shook much longer. My aunt and uncle, who live downtown in a 32-story high rise, saw pictures whipped from their shelves and deposited unceremoniously on the ground.
If the video is to be believed, tapings of such daytime TV staples as “Judge Judy” were rudely interrupted as studio lights swung wildly above the clueless plaintiff and defendant. After almost 15 years of relative seismic quiet, I half expected Los Angelenos, led by our furious firebrand Judge Judy, to scream at the ground itself to stop its tomfoolery because it was impeding the progress of our exceedingly important schedules.
But truth be told, the citizens of this fair city did hold their tongues and performed well. Driving down Wilshire after extricating myself from the bathroom, I saw a sea of employees congregating on the curbs for miles, unsure of their next course of action, but confident that outside was the best place to be.
The middle-scale power of the earthquake had left the workers in a quandary: clearly, something major had just happened, but was it major enough to stop typing? Major enough to take an extra-long lunch break just to make sure everything was calmed down? The general consensus, along Wilshire and around the city, was that this event was major enough to make a dozen calls on the cell phone, but little more.
Indeed, if there was one failing grade to be given out last week, it goes without question to the cell phone companies. That’s of course a blanket statement, as I have no idea where precisely the system broke down, but for most of us who tried to get any semblance of action out of our constant communicative companions, the lost signals, plaintive redials and flat-out dead air were tough to take.
One of the great technological advances of our age is the ability to be in contact with loved ones at times of emergency – how many hikers have been saved on distant peaks because of a furtive call or a cell signal picked up by the wind? To have such a profound, if brief, collapse of this overwhelmed system is shameful.
While we’re on the topic of shameful, I’d be remiss if I didn’t blast the 24-hour cable news monster that provided wall-to-wall coverage of the event on what proved to be an excruciatingly slow news day.
As Los Angeles was getting on with its afternoon, its residents were fielding millions of fearful calls from relatives who just turned on their computers and televisions to see the imposing seismographs and concentric circles overlaid on graphics of the coastline that illustrated a calamity that had not befallen the city. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, bless him, was doing his best to cover a topic West of the Potomac that had nothing to do with the Presidential election and struggled just a bit. Usually, Los Angeles bends over backwards for publicity, ripping its heart out to exaggerate and extend the latest news from the coast, but last week I think most of us were pretty happy to tune out the media noise.
So now we march onward, driving our cars over the fault lines that could easily dump us into the ocean, building lovely beach houses on flimsy sand foundations, keeping our horrible cell phone providers who have proven inept in the crunch. We’re safe, obviously. We’re completely safe until we’re absolutely not.
I’d like to hope that all earthquakes just provide a moment for co-workers to gather outside in the curbside sunshine around lunch, but somehow I doubt it. For me, I’m getting prepared for next time. I’m never going to the bathroom again.