I was offline and out hiking by the river in Cafayate as aftershocks hit an already badly hit Chile, tsunami fears rose and fell in California and the entire world braced for more.
I heard only word-of-mouth reports from other hikers. One person described how the streets of Salta split, cracked and houses were falling in. I thought the story sounded weird, considering we were in Salta at the time the earthquake hit and didn’t feel a thing. That’s when I was told there had been a second, a much worse one. Another we met on the path asked if we'd also felt the ground shake or had rocks fall on us.
But we were two hours out on Rio Colorado, so we did the only thing we could do and kept walking.
Even when I was finally able to connect, I was able check the flood of e-mails asking about our well being (Thank you for that!), but still no concrete information about what actually happened. Many things went through my head on the ride home last night.
How lucky we were to be away when (if) such a horrible earthquake hit. It was possible we would return home to find our house in some deep fissure in the earth, but really, who cares if we have us?
It also reminded me how I felt during 9-11. I had a feeling of complete calm, maybe a better word for it is numbness. Maybe that's just my way of freaking out.
I remember the stories reported that day as well. Tanks were rolling through the streets of Brooklyn. Martial law had taken over in NYC, and the sound of sirens and smell of smoke underscored the seeming truth of those rumors.
I thought about 9/12, when Noah and I visited our friend Ali uptown, and how difficult it had been to get home that night. The subway stopped, and we found ourselves midtown east, right next to the Empire State building. Word of mouth news arrived from all sides. West side trains weren’t running because of a bomb threat in Penn Station. Grand Central shut because of another one. We decided to walk downtown toward home, when we bumped into a crowd of people moving quickly in the opposite direction.
One shouted out, “You can’t go that way. The police closed the street. There’s a bomb about to blow in the Empire State building.” As she spoke, the people around her moved faster, went from trot to panicked run. I swear, I looked up and in my mind for one split second, I actually saw that New York boxy layer cake landmark explode in spark and fire. First instinct screamed “Run!”.
That is what panic can do.
What would my sprinting off fearfully do? Nothing. If anything, panic makes people unable to take care of themselves.
I’ve always been proud of the fact I was able to quell my own panic in that situation. Then Noah, another random man on the street and I stopped the runners and managed to calm everyone down enough to determine that nothing they’d heard could be verified. Random street man mumbled something under his breath about tourists, amateurs.
I thought about Haiti and how a 7.0 earthquake there wreaked such devastation, whereas a 6.6 in Salta sent out ripples of rumor, but nothing concrete in Cafayate. Many factors determine the deadliness of natural disasters. Do they occur deep in the ground? What type of rock are they built on? How solid is building code?
I wondered if perhaps building codes been better in Haiti, the damage would have been mitigated. While it doesn't help to wonder what if and should, perhaps putting some of the money currently earmarked for Haiti toward creating a system of more solid, earthquake resistant construction would be worthwhile.
I remembered Noah telling me years ago, when he worked in hazards mitigation for Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, how three and four story buildings tended to be more badly damaged than, say, sky scrapers or one story houses, perhaps not as solidly built.
I asked Noah if, like hurricanes, there is an earthquake season. He said no. Earthquakes are notoriously difficult to predict. Prediction is based on history and geology. If you live by volcanoes, fault lines, near mountains formed by tectonic plates smashing together, there’s a greater chance of additional seismic activity. If your town has never before experienced it, chances are you won’t any time soon.
I marveled at how one of the very few days I’m entirely offline, this.
I assumed the reports we heard in Cafayate were probably some odd mixture of the news coming from Chile, information about the actual earthquake in Salta and fear, but we had no reason to believe what turned out to be horrid exaggeration was true.
As I caught a first glimpse of Salta glowing in the distance around 1am, I figured that seeing electricity was a good sign. There were no police on the roads, no obvious destruction, certainly not of the scale described in Cafayate. At home, everything sat in the same place it had this morning. We put a sleeping Lila in bed. Internet was out, but that’s nothing new.
I connected for a little while this morning, but it cut again before I had a chance to read the news. As I write this, I still have little idea what’s going on in the world outside our house.Photos by Goddard Space Center Photo and Video Blog and Morrissey.