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It's Four to a Bed When the Windows Start Rattling


It was perfectly normal, that swarm of earthquakes that rattled our windows and our nerves last weekend. Just aftershocks--three years late--to the big Northridge quake, which, remember, was not really the Big One after all, but just felt that way.

So say the scientists who make their living studying quakes. They talk about "ground acceleration" and "fault plains" and not to worry because there's only a 1-in-20 chance that those aftershocks mean another big one is on the way.

So why am I still so scared? How could three years of courage, carefully cultivated, be undone by 20 seconds of "moderate" shaking?

Like the '94 quake, these rumblings came in the middle of the night, as a series of temblors rolled through the ground underneath my home.

And while they may not have registered high enough on the Richter scale to impress the scientists, they sure put a crimp in my family's routine.

Never mind that there were no injuries nor damage this time around. Here in Northridge--Ground Zero in 1994--there's a toll earthquakes take that cannot be measured in hospital visits and fallen chimneys.

Call it post-earthquake trauma, if you will.

My girls and I are back now to sleeping crunched together, four to a bed, with the hall light on, our shoes by the steps, flashlights and jackets ready at the front door.

The dog jumps on the bed in the middle of the night and the children wake with a start, their hearts pounding. A midnight trip to the kitchen racks me with fear. What if I'm downstairs and they're in bed when the next one comes?

I hate how this uncertainty makes us such cowards.

And I wonder if there's a kind of psychic damage that comes from living with the knowledge that at any moment, the ground beneath your feet can give way; damage that seems to compound with every break along the fault lines near my home.


They sounded so reassuring earlier this year, those earthquake experts who said we should expect only four aftershocks with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater in the next 12 months.

Instead, there were 12 last weekend alone.

I watch now as the scientists backpedal, admitting their predictions "have to be taken with uncertainty." They study their maps and track the faults . . . and I wonder if this is any more scientific than reading tea leaves or Tarot cards.

The scientists label the weekend swarm "aftershocks," as if that makes them not so terrifying; as if they were nothing more than a few bubbles the Earth forgot to release the last time its belch brought us to our knees.

I'm not so sure. Still, I rely on that label to lull my children back to sleep, after they run screaming to me when their room begins rocking with that first big jolt.

"It's just an aftershock, honey," I say. Then the bed shakes again--a 4.0 rolling through. "Just another aftershock."

The next night--dozens of aftershocks later--I greet a neighbor as I take out the trash. She says there's been a run on the grocery stores; people stocking up so they won't be caught--like us in '94--without so much as a loaf of bread in the house. We laugh.

Then she sheepishly admits loading her car, just in case, with a sleeping bag, flashlight and radio. Her mother heard on the TV news that the big one might be on its way. "Silly, huh?" she asks.

We laugh again, but later, when the kids are asleep, I back my car from the garage and toss a blanket in the back seat. I have not forgotten shivering for hours outside in the predawn cold, when the 6.7 Northridge quake sent us fleeing our homes.

Since then, we've come to see ourselves as hardy souls, my neighbors and I. Survival gave us license to joke: "We've had our disaster. It's somebody else's turn now."

But it doesn't seem so funny anymore, not after a weekend of quakes. Humor is the first thing to go when you're lying in bed, wondering again if the walls are about to come down around you.


I brace myself when the phone rings the next day, as friends and family begin checking in from around the country. It happens after every firestorm, deluge and earthquake, and it takes all the bravado I can muster to keep them at bay.

My Alabama aunts can't understand why I choose to risk my children's lives in a place that's liable to drop off into the ocean at any moment. My sister in Ohio is more subtle: She's heard the local paper is hiring--"it's really gotten a lot more professional, you know"--and I could probably find a job there.

It's been a slow weekend on the national news, and the California quakes have replaced North Dakota's flooding as the natural disaster du jour.

"We're fine," I tell them. "No, we're not worried at all. It was just a few little aftershocks."

And I hold tight to the kitchen counter, as the house begins shaking again.

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