Snap judgement: All shook up

There is something uniquely unsettling about an earthquake.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Earthquake concerns were the last thing on my mind when I moved to Israel. On the morning of November 24, 1995, I awoke suddenly to find my bed shaking. "Stop moving the bed," my wife groggily mumbled alongside me. "Uhh, honey, I think this is an earthquake," I responded - an astute observation confirmed a second later when a framed photo tumbled from a bookshelf. My wife's confusion was understandable, and not only because this was our first time in bed when the earth moved for us (at least literally). Born and raised in the Netherlands, she had never experienced an earthquake - and neither had this native New Yorker. Luckily, we kept our heads - unlike the couple in Eilat, the quake's epicenter, where an elderly man suffered a heart attack trying to carry his panicked spouse down the stairs of their apartment building. He was the only Israeli fatality resulting from the event, which measured 6.2 on the Richter scale, along with eight others killed in Egypt and Jordan. The quake did cause significant property damage in Eilat - although nowhere near the havoc of the 1927 temblor responsible for some 200 deaths in Mandatory Palestine, the even larger one that leveled Safed in 1837 and killed thousands, or the massive quake that destroyed Beit She'an in 749 and may have killed tens of thousands. Of course, when I moved here nearly 25 years ago I barely knew of those events, and the idea that I was moving to earthquake country was the last thought on my mind. My personal safety concerns, and those of my family, ran to more mundane security matters, such as terrorist bombings, missile attacks and Israeli drivers. The 1995 temblor convinced my wife and I to take out earthquake insurance on our home. It also made us, like many Israelis, aware for the first time just how precarious life could potentially be while living on the edge of one of the biggest fault lines in the earth's crust, the Syro-African rift. That awareness has only intensified the last year, as no less than four quakes, minor but perceptible, have rattled the country. And a heightened local sensitivity to this problem may be at least partly responsible for the relatively extensive coverage the local media has been giving during the past week to the quake that has taken more than 30,000 lives in China. Another reason for that, though, must surely be the large amount of extraordinary television footage this horrific incident has produced, especially coming from a society that in past years did its best to cover up from the outside world the consequences of such large-scale tragedies. Perhaps prior efforts by Beijing to officially downplay such natural-disaster tragedies also account for what to these eyes seems to be the extreme outpouring of emotions, even given these exceptional circumstances, on the part of the Chinese people. I ADMIT that earlier in my life, an earthquake in China, or pretty much anywhere else, seemed such a distant event from my own reality that it barely resonated on the emotional Richter scale of my own consciousness. But having personally experienced, even in a much reduced manner, what it feels like to have the very ground beneath you shake - I distinctly felt the tremors from two of this past year's quakes - I have a better understanding of just how devastating an event such as this can potentially be. Not just in physical or material damage. An earthquake is not unique among natural disasters in its destructive power; flooding, as a result of storms (such as recently in Burma and Bangladesh) or tsunamis (as with the massive wave that swept Southeast Asia in 2004) can be far more deadly. Other threatening natural phenomena, such as volcanoes or tornadoes, can be just as spectacular. But there is something uniquely unsettling, in every sense of the word, about an earthquake, surely the reason the expression "feeling the ground shift between your very feet" has come to mean a general sense of dislocation. After all, people who live near large bodies of water, areas prone to violent storms or close to volcanoes develop a certain expectation of potential threat in their environment. But an earthquake comes so suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, that it has the potential to be psychically damaging as well. (In this regard I strongly recommend Japanese author Haruki Murakami's brilliantly disturbing short-story collection After the Quake, which deals both subtly and surrealistically with the consequences of the lethal 1995 Kobe temblor.) There is something so disturbing at the primal level about an earthquake, it represents such a disruption to the natural order of things, that it is no surprise this is the cruel fate God serves up to the Bible's ultimate sinners, the followers of Korah who rebel against Moses in the wilderness: "The ground that was under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korah, and their entire wealth. They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit" (Numbers 16:3-34). Thanks to the recent quakes here, as well as far more devastating regional events in Turkey and Iran, Israel is slowly and belatedly coming to realize the threat of the seismic time bomb on which it is sitting. The government must clearly do more to ensure that acceptable earthquake-ready building standards are passed into law and conformed to - something that appears not to have been the case in China, where inadequate construction standards have contributed significantly to the number of fatalities. That point, though, has already been made extensively in this newspaper and elsewhere, and needn't be expounded on here. In a way, I even understand this dangerous indifference; for a society that faces no shortage of imminent threats from its fellow men, including apocalyptic fanatics in Teheran who may soon have their hands on the triggers of nuclear weapons, it's not surprising that it can be a little hard to focus on the seemingly fantastical prospect that the earth could one day split open and swallow us and all our households whole. In recent years, though, we have been increasingly warned by example of the folly of ignoring, and failing to prepare for, the awesome destructive power of the natural world in all its varieties, including earthquakes. And while I never dreamed in my younger days that seismic tremors would ever be a personal concern, in the last decade my perception of the world in which I, and my fellow Israelis, live has undoubtedly been all shook up. [email protected]