From Alabama to Colombia: My First Earthquake

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Okay

. Breathe deep.

Okay okay okay okay.

An earthquake just jostled Bogota. At 6.2 on Richter, it packed enough sheer power to crack tall buildings down the center and spill nine million people onto sidewalks. Luckily, the epicenter lay 97 miles under the ground and about 175 miles north. A deep quake, down where Godzilla sleeps.

Even that far down and far away, el temblor shook things up.

The tall buildings did spill people, but they streamed out in orderly fashion from predesignated exits into safe open spaces. Bogotanos appear well trained in matters of earthshaking importance.

By plan, about 500 men in jackets and women in professional dress gathered in the dog park near my apartment in Santa Barbara Occidental. These corporate types stood around laughing and smoking, relishing a brief respite from spreadsheets and PowerPoints. Some childishly took advantage of the park’s swing sets. Eventually, emergency management personnel in red company vests waved signal signs high in the air to reassemble work groups.

People returned to high-rises and homes with a surge of exhilaration. Bogota is a friendly place, but it seemed especially friendly that hour.

Dodging the death angel brings out the best in people.

Sometimes.

I come

from a place in south Alabama where natural disasters play into almost every family history.

A tornado once ripped my sister’s mobile home into three pieces.

A newlywed, she and her then-husband lay down to rest one dark and stormy night. An hour later, the mattress where they snuggled hung impaled on a pine branch 40 feet above the ground a half-mile away. Somewhere over the rainbow, Carole and Mike’s wedding gifts rained down onto Oz. Look, munchkins! A toaster! Over there! A macramé Cher!

My sister woke just before the twister hit, alarmed by a noise exactly like—you guessed it—an approaching freight train. The trailer rolled over and over and over in pitch darkness.

A car appeared on the rural road. Behind the wipers, a respected man and woman from my family’s church blinked in disbelief. Cut, bleeding and naked, an unlucky couple stood shivering by the road in cold rain, hands out pleading for help.

The Bad Samaritans drove right on by.

In 2004

, Hurricane Ivan smote the Florida Panhandle. The storm killed a few idiots who chose not to evacuate. A few other idiots who didn’t die swore with the whites of their eyes showing that they’d never, ever, stay home again if a hurricane got within 500 miles from the coast.

My then-wife and I owned a cottage on Pensacola Bay. It took nearly a week for crews to clear county roads so we could reach it.

The fine houses up and down the bayside no longer looked so fine. A wet nuclear blast had hit Navarre. Surviving live oaks dangled pitiful, broken limbs. We found our 150-foot dock a quarter-mile down the bay. Someone else’s dock sprawled like a rotted dinosaur skeleton across our lot.

Worse, a dingy waterline marked where three feet of water had risen into our cinder-block house. The refrigerator lay on its side. Stinging flies swarmed a dead mullet on the couch. We lost 100 books to water and mold.

This stuff happens all the time in the U.S. A flood washes away an elementary school. Drought parches a corn crop. Lightning strikes an old man, leaving him alive but a little testy.

We generally take all this in stride. We even write Acts of God into law books.

But earthquakes?

I’ll admit it. Good old dependable planet earth had never trembled under my feet before. It leaves me a little jelly-legged.

earthquake 3.jpg
Photo via Flickr/Masahiko OHKUBO

Way down

deep in the mind you find the epicenter of worry. Unpredictability makes its cave a little darker.

Tornadoes, those deadly black funnels writhing on the horizon like amphetamine-jacked rattlers, strike unexpectedly, but at least we know the kind of weather that causes them, and we can be watchful. People in the South once routinely built tornado shelters, hobbit houses with doorways leading down to safe places under the earth.

Hurricanes, slow and ponderous, give us days to board up windows, pack cars, get the heck out of Dodge. Thank modern technology. A century ago, only the ache of joints could predict a hurricane. The terrible Galveston disaster in 1900 rushed in its deadly surge of seawater long before we had weather channels and sky satellites.

To avoid lightning, we can stay indoors. Wild fires predict themselves—a towering skyline of smoke means you better run to the truck and drive like hell. Even volcanoes tease their imminent eruptions with premature plumes, lava flows and warnings like that.

Earthquakes? Nada. No warning. Maybe a black flock of birds lifts suddenly off a tree. A dog begins to frantically bark at a closed door.

That’s it. The earth, Mr. Darwin’s roulette wheel, spins ‘round. Plates collide. Continents tremble.

Good luck.

I feel

a little ridiculous, actually. As quakes go, this hiccup hardly mattered. The earth simply shuddered in one small spot, the way a horse judders a little patch of skin to drive off a pesky fly.

Maybe it troubled me so much because, as a new traveler to Bogota, I needed life to simply be normal again. Routine.

On Sunday before travel to Colombia, I had driven 600 round-trip miles from Atlanta to visit Alabama family. I stayed up all Sunday night, not one wink of sleep, packing and preparing my house for sale. At 4 a.m. Monday morning, I took a taxi to the international terminal … only to learn my flight departed from the domestic terminal. Worse still, the airline had no record of the Atlanta-Miami leg of my flight. Then, when I reached Miami, my booking for the second flight leg, Miami-Bogota, had somehow vanished from the system too.

Wait. There’s more.

After boarding all passengers in Miami, the pilot couldn’t fire the engine on the plane’s right side. Every traveler deplaned, waited hours, then finally crawled aboard the repaired jet to fly three-and-one-half hours over Cuba, Jamaica, and finally the Andes before dropping into El Dorado International in Bogota.

Those sleepless-in-Atlanta hours and other travel travails left me badly in need of a Tuesday nap.

Just as I lay down, my bed jumped.

It moved exactly the way the cabin of a small boat moves when a big ship passes. Rhythmically and powerfully, my whole apartment rocked like a cradle. Cue up a soundtrack: Jerry Lee Lewis. Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

Honestly, I thought I might be hallucinating, sleep deprived. But when I staggered out of bed, the building staggered too. Structures across the street swayed a little. Leaves trembled.

Earthquake alert sirens sounded all over the city. Better late than never. I promise you nine million people knew about the quake before those sirens wailed.

During

the cacophony, I met Adela, my fiancée, and Ana Maria, one of her children (now my child, too) in the park. The air smelled fresh, good. We went home exhilarated like all those who survived a tremor and returned to apartments or offices with a rippin’ good yarn to tell.

Still … every silver lining has its cloud.

A new worry rumbles all the time now, deep down in my mind. There among the primal fears. That Godzilla place.

Breathe deep, a voice says, okay okay okay okay.

I will now expect the unexpected at any moment.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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