From NY to CA: Fearing Earthquakes

Most people don’t remember the dreams they had as a child. For me, however, the vivid images of my childhood nightmares will be forever ingrained in my memory because they always involve the same scenario: an earthquake.

Growing up in upstate New York, I hadn’t had any experience with earthquakes by the time I was 7 or 8 years old. In my mind, the disasters mimicked an exaggeration of the images I’d only seen in movies or read in books: the earth’s crust would suddenly split apart, creating a fiery rift that led straight to the depths of hell. In my dreams, I was always teetering on the edge, staring directly into this gaping hole to the center of the shaking earth, as the people around me fell in. (Yes, I was in the second grade. I don’t even want to begin to psychoanalyze my younger self.)

I’d wake up nearly every night to the slight amusement of my parents, who would console me with the theory that earthquakes only happened in places like California. I read books about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which became in my mind the scariest place in the world. We would visit my relatives in the Bay Area every few years, and I remember being terrified at the slightest shake of a table or the backfiring of a car the entire time we were there.

When my parents told me, at age 10, that we were moving to California, I remember clearly the first emotion that I felt. It wasn’t confusion over our impending transcontinental shift. It wasn’t sadness at leaving my East Coast life behind. It was sheer terror, because we were relocating to a place where earthquakes happened on what I thought was a daily basis. I was sure I was flying 3,000 miles closer to my death.

The first week I went to school (which was located in a city that sat directly on the San Andreas fault, I had already noted), they had an earthquake drill. Other students ducked under their desks without question, chatting and laughing as they waited the obligatory 10 minutes, but I crouched, horrified, in fetal position the entire time. They had drills for this? How was this flimsy desk supposed to save me from the wrath of natural disaster?

Happily, I managed to survive a few months in California without incident. I remember one day sitting at the dinner table doing my homework, when I began to feel a slight shaking. I heard the chair I was using rattle against the leg of the table for a few seconds and then, as quickly as it had begun, it was gone.

I was unsure what had happened until my mom came in and asked cautiously if I had felt the earthquake. I was baffled. Weren’t earthquakes supposed to tear the earth apart? Shouldn’t there be a burning pit in the middle of my living room right now? The whole experience, to me, was incredibly relieving, if entirely anticlimactic.

It still amuses me that my friends and colleagues, who are native Californians, get excited every time the earth shakes a little. My social networking newsfeeds are always filled with dozens of status updates, seconds after (sometimes during!) an earthquake that I might not even have felt.

After the devastating quake in Haiti last year and the recent 7.1 magnitude quake in Chile just this month, we tremble in the face of earthquake and tsunami warnings, which is a terrifying fact when you live 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

A decade after my move to the West Coast, I have yet to experience anything as horrific as these tragic disasters, and my fear of earthquakes has significantly dwindled. But I have to admit, a tiny part of me, the native New Yorker, still lives on this coast in the constant fear that the earth will open up and swallow me in the manner of my 7-year-old dreams.