Privilege Blog

Are You More Afraid Of Earthquakes? Or Hurricanes?, Or, Saturday Morning at 11:16am

As you may know, much of the East Coast of the United States will be stuck under Hurricane Irene for the next few days. I send safe wishes to all.

As you may know, the same region also experienced an earthquake last week. I hope no one reading suffered too much damage or distress. What are the probabilities of an earthquake AND a hurricane so close together, on the East Coast? Very small. I imagine everyone shaking their heads.

I’m thinking about worry and fear.

Someone said, on Twitter, “Earthquakes are scary. Period.” But that’s not true. When the earthquake hit, I wondered what all the fuss was about. A 5.8 on the Richter Scale? How is that scary? We eat 5.8 for breakfast here in Northern California, like so much ground pepper.

The East Coast earthquake was scary mostly because it was out of the ordinary. As a result, nobody builds for earthquakes back east, nobody knows what to do if one hits. High rises shook more violently than they do here, bricks fell apart, stuff cracked. Everyone ran out of their buildings. For reference, never run out of your building in an earthquake.

So the 5.8 earthquake in Virginia had a stronger physical impact than in Northern California.  But that’s not the full story. We are all simply more scared of what we don’t know. That’s not the full story either. I think each of us feels certain types of risk more painfully than others.

I worried for years about three large Monterey Pines next to my house, worried that they would fall over and crush someone or something I loved. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I cut them down and haven’t missed them since. What worried me most was that if the pines fell, I would know I had been lazy. I would know I was at fault.

I am more scared of doing a bad job than of most anything else.

Some people hate what they can’t prepare for. Some of us hate, even more, the idea we might prepare badly. We prefer the random strike. I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m an atheist. Random seems kinder than rules I might break, unwittingly. Better an earthquake than the predicted hurricane. With an earthquake, I prepare for probabilities. There’s water in the garage, two lanterns, first aid kit, etc. And then I brush my hands together and go about my day.

We’ve all got worry profiles. Probably it would be a good thing, to understand yours, before the hurricane hits. The trick being to fear what you must, and not much more.

39 Responses

  1. I’m def more afraid of earthquakes and tornadoes, there’s no warning. With a hurricane I know days in advance and can get the hell out of dodge if I need to (my rule is category 3 or higher and I evacuate).

    It also helps that I grew up in hurricane land, so I know what to do. I brought my container plants indoors, I went to the store before the mad dash, and I have books and movies to keep myself occupied.

    The scariest part of the earthquake was not knowing what it was. Living in Washington, DC my brain went immediately to terrorists blowing up my building. I never would have thought it was an earthquake if someone from an earthquake area hadn’t told me.

  2. “The trick being to fear what you must, and not much more” is more than wise enough for those of us who are lucky enough to face no immediate disasters. Very well said.

  3. Well, it has been an adventure here on the East coast this week, that’s for sure! We’ve tied down what we could, taken down the basketball hoop and the play set, locked in our supplies, and prepped the generator. Now we just wait and see. Good luck to all of us in Irene’s line of fire.

  4. The rain started for us, in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, just about two hours ago. In the time left before the power goes, I’m making cookies, playing games with the children, washing laundry, and trying to act much more assured than I am. I am one who sent my 7 year old outside with the dog when the house starting shaking earlier in the week, but I feel on surer ground (so to speak), although less so than I’d prefer.

    I understand what you mean about laziness. But I’ve been good – the outdoor furniture is cluttering the enclosed desk and anything we can imagine blowing is now firmly secured to the earth. We’re ready.

  5. I fear hurricanes more than earthquakes- probably because I grew up in an “earthquake zone” that only gets mild earthquakes. Everyone else in my office ran around like fools while I moved into an inner doorway in a hall, AWAY from the massive sheet of plate glass window in my office. Then, I went back to work.

    Hurricanes are the drama queens of disaster, thanks in part to the media- it just goes on and on and on… but just like earthquakes, there’s really nothing you can do about it and you never really know how bad it’s going to be until it’s over. I like my disasters like I like to have booster shots done- don’t tell me exactly when it’s going to happen, make it quick, and then let me get on with life.

  6. Gosh, I’m from Houston – We are used to hurricanes here. A nice little one, Cat 1 say, would be nice — it would break the drought. If it sat here and rained for a week, it would fill the reservoir’s. I cannot even imagine a earthquake.

  7. In between batten-downs as I read and respond. Thank you for the words of encouragement. It’s an Hail Mary now…

  8. We’re getting ready here in coastal Connecticut (near NYC.) The roads will be closed soon. A mandatory evacuation has been declared for a few streets around us. What scares me are the tornadoes within the hurricane. . . My 86 yr old mother in law remembers the great north eastern hurricane of ’38. She was a teenager at the time. They had no clue a bad storm was coming. A neighbor of theirs ran up the street yelling that a flood was coming and everyone moved to higher ground.

    We never felt the earthquake although a few of my friends did.

  9. I’m more than a bit of a control freak. Therefore, earthquakes and tornadoes scare me more than hurricanes. If you are well prepared for a hurricane, you will be absolutely fine. The earthquake here felt like a heavy truck in the office parking lot. I remember thinking it was the wrong day for the linen delivery guy.

  10. It’s my opinion that the Hurricane hoopla is all about elected officials trying to make hay from something that’ll get the public thinking about something besides what corrupt/self-serving/louses they are.

    It’s a well known fact that planning a beach vacation this time of year is always a gamble because these storms turn up with such regularity.

    Earthquakes are not familiar to a Mid-Atlantic resident. Down in the sub-basement of a huge Federal building I didn’t want to wait around and see if it was going to come down on top of me. We were sufficiently panicked that we all forgot our fire-drill training and didn’t pick up our gas masks.

  11. I was born during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. At least we know they are coming and can prepare. So a Cat 1 or 2 is no big deal. We put the shutters up and make sure we have plenty of ice for cocktails.

  12. I live near Washington DC where, unlike you in California, we have been the subjects of a major terrorist attack. Because so many of us here are in government or the military, or work in facilities that are targets for attack, we think in these terms. And with the tenth anniversary of 9-11 coming up, and threats that there will be an anniversary strike, such thoughts are natural.

    During the earthquake I ran outside to scan the horizon for rising smoke, as I had seen going up from the Pentagon on 9-11. As the ground shook under my bare feet, I thought, How many megatons must this blast be to shake the ground this long? Across the street from me a USMC colonel was also out on his lawn thinking the same thing.

    In addition, it should be borne in mind that the rock formations of the East are different from those of the West Coast. Your earthquakes occur within a discrete area and are not felt a thousand miles away. This one was felt from Georgia to Toronto, from DC to Chicago–alarming in itself.

    Today we are dealing with a very minor hurricane/tropical storm and some accompanying tornadoes. In six months, there will be ice storms and/or blizzards. It’s never dull here!

  13. What I am unwittingly thinking (as a product of Catholic girl-school education) is that most of the Earth’s people have been dismal failures as a part of the grand experiment. I would prefer to think scientifically that the universe is in charge. But, since our Lord doesn’t send letters to our mailboxes or knock on our doors, perhaps, He is sending a very loud message via Mother Nature that we need to get our act straightened out. 360 we have had catastrophic weather occurances for a few years now, beginning with the tsumani. I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast all my life and can testify to the horrendous damage a mad hurricane can make. And, now, we are warned so far in advance we are exhausted from making ready by the time of it’s arrival. I’m going to ask Noah.

  14. Luck favors the prepared!

    Here in suburban Philly we are waiting for the power to go out, and that is by far the most traumatic part of extreme weather for me, especially with three children. As long as we are safe, I can deal with the inconvenience and even pretend to make an adventure out of it.

    The earthquake was actually pretty cool, but now I can happily cross that off my list.

  15. Our younger son is braving the hurricane in NYC this weekend. Fortunately, he is in Zone C and out of the mandatory evacuation area. He has no flashlight, but assured me that he has candles. Hopefully, he has enough water. I know he has food.

  16. Funny that you should post this today as I am preparing my earthquake kit for the outdoor shed…
    All the basics… flashlight, candles, wind up radio, water, first aid kit, blankets, food, cooking supplies and I think I should add some wine or bubbly…just in case!
    You are always on the pulse Lisa!

  17. Right now we are worried about my father-in-law, Colonel X, who lives only a few miles from where Irene made landfall. He probably should have evacuated but is unlikely to leave his rather large menagerie of cats and other assorted creatures. X has so far been unable to raise him. But as he has survived Vietnam and a number of crash landings in flying death traps and is a decent sailor, we expect he will be OK.

    I’ve considered myself an atheist for a long time, but unlike you (and many physical scientists, including X), I have not made peace with randomness. Perhaps I am really a deist at heart; I can imagine the universe as a massive organism or piece of machinery constructed and functioning according to a set of physical laws to which its indifferent, impersonal Creator may or may not be itself subject, but within which we are merely incidental to its vaster workings or purpose (if, indeed, it has one). This belief is oddly comforting to me and helps me cope with my lack of control over so many catastrophic forces (forest fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, the Tea Party, etc).

    I hope members of your family on the East Coast and those of other commenters here have weathered the storm well and safely.

  18. My brother in law was in Haiti, working for an International Organization, when the earthquake happened. He survived because he had stayed home that day with a stomach flu, and he lived in one of the few properly built buildings in Port-au-Prince. The building shook but nothing else. I am more scared of being in places that are unprepared, with Governments that just don’t have a clue of what to do when a disaster happens. It’s not only about surviving the disaster itself, but about surviving the weeks, even months that follow.

  19. I think I would be more scared of an earthquake than a hurricane – you might get some warning with the latter. Experienced several minor earthquakes when I lived in California in the late 70’s… but what does really frighten me is a tsunami – the power of water – all conquering.
    And LOVE your pics in the previous post – and the outfits – the sandals are TDF! x

  20. Interesting what you’re getting at — I’ve been thinking about this since I read it yesterday, and I realize that much of my fear has a social component — that is, it’s mitigated if I have the right company, worsened if I’m alone, worsened even more if I’m worrying for a loved one I can’t be with. Even at the dentist, fear is immensely lessened by feeling the sympathy and understanding of the dental team. In pain (when I broke my leg, or when getting stitches), a hand to squeeze makes a huge difference.
    One night, years ago, we crossed stormy waters to our little island in a small, open boat we used to use for commuting. Our son, 9 or 10 at the time, was afraid the whole crossing, but I cuddled him and comforted him that although it was really rough, we were in no danger — I had total faith in my husband’s assessment, his boat skills, and if he thought it was safe to cross, it must be, so I put my own instinctive fears aside. But we got to the other side, docked safely, and as soon as we were all out of the boat, Paul said, “That was stupid. I’m never doing that again with you guys in the boat.” Apparently, he realized partway across that it was much more dangerous than his initial assessment had indicated, and my instinctive fears would have been reasonable to honour!
    What was most instructive to me about the anecdote (and before too long, we replaced our boat for a very skookum one in which I would be willing to cross quite stormy waters) was the contingency on which hinged my fear — in my husband’s company, in his sureness, I could put aside fears that would have paralyzed me on my own.

  21. I have lived in California for most of my life and the idea of an earthquake is more terrifying to me because of the unpredictability factor. I have experienced earthquakes here, but nothing on the scale of the 1906 SF earthquake or the recent earthquake in Japan. The idea of a hurricane is less frightening because there is almost always the option to evacuate with some knowledge of the strength of the storm to come.

    Growing up in Northern California, I was always aware of the 1906 SF earthquake. The story is an integral part of our history and life here. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane which is a terrifying and heartbreaking story. It was a balmy sunny day in Galveston and the denizens were enjoying the day with no awareness of the storm to come. It is estimated that the hurricane and ensuing storm surge across the island killed between 6,000 – 12,000 unsuspecting souls.

    Unquestionably, predictability and the ability to prepare and evacuate is the primary factor in my worry profile. However, this does not keep me from staying put in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    As someone commented above, geologists stated that because of the nature of the rocks there, this most recent earthquake on the East Coast shook the ground more violently than the same level earthquake would here in California.

  22. I heard some comment on the news asking why such a big deal was made of the east coast quake when almost the same day, a similar quake happened in southern utah. my thought was to take a look at the number of people impacted by each event. many millions on the east coast, many hundreds in utah. same thing with the hurricane. when you hear numbers like 500k+ people without power just in maryland alond, and then think about the states north and south of us, then you realize what a massive event this is.

    (we’re all safe btw!)

  23. Living in Tel Aviv, hurricanes aren’t in part of my lexicon here; however, earthquakes & random acts of terror certainly are!

    Most of us here have a “secure (concrete) room” (in the event of chemical/biological warfare) in our homes or a communal shelter in the building or somewhere in the neighborhood in older homes & communities. Having a supply of water, canned goods, electrical supplies on hand…just in case is the norm. Obviously there is a heightened awareness here.

    But having said that – I think most of the population here have a fatalistic approach to these events. You can’t live your life being paralyzed by fear. We just get on with it & try not to dwell on the possibilities – hoping/praying (depending on one’s religious conviction) for the best.

    Wishing you all safety.


    1. When I lived in Ivory Coast, Africa we did the same. We had a VHF radio always charged, iron curtains in case of shooting, supplies and water always ready. And of course, antimalarials that always travelled with us, just in case. At the time it seemed normal, it was our normality anyway. When we leaved it’s when it struck me: there was another way of living!

  24. I was born and raised on the coast in Southern California and still live here. Outside of an occasional earthquake now and then, there is no place on the planet I would rather live.

    BTW, I just finished watching our local Little League team (Huntington Beach) beat Japan in the Little League World Series. Yippee! :-)

  25. I agree, though, with the statement “Earthquakes are scary. Period.” The earth isn’t supposed to move.

    I grew up in Seattle, but the first earthquake I could actually feel wasn’t until I was in my 20s. It was just a little one (high 3s, maybe?), but I had nightmares for months afterward, as my subconscious tried to sort out how that earth movement was possible. When we had the low-7 earthquake a few years later I was worried but not as viscerally afraid, as I knew within a few seconds what it was.

    I can’t imagine what it would have been like for my first earthquake to have been a 5.9.

  26. Emmaleigh – I can only imagine what it must be like, living always with the knowledge you might be under attack.

    belle – When I was little it was volcanoes. That was silly. But fear of a tsunami, when you live by the coast, not silly.

    Joy – Isn’t it lovely that, for now at least, we’re still here?

    Mise – I thank you.

    Stephanie – Hope you are all hanging in there, with power.

    Marsha – It sounds as though you prepared well. I hope your power is up.

  27. Catherine – Ha! Hurricanes are sort of drama queens. The way they go over water, pout, and gain strength. I was glued to the television Saturday, I confess.

    Maggie – I feel like that about nice little earthquakes, kind of a fun ride. Big ones, of course, are a different story. I do hope Texas gets some more rain.

    Mags – Did everything work out?

    Ccjach – Sounds like tornadoes weren’t a problem, but the power losses are severe? My mother tells stories of a hurricane on Cape Cod. They stoked the wood-burning stove and shuttered their windows.

    Susan – :).

    DocP – I think our first thoughts at earthquakes are often really interesting. I was in the car for the 1989 Loma Prieta, and thought the trees were shaking because of wind. At first.

  28. RoseAG – I love that you use the word “louse.” And we don’t even have basements in California, much of the time. I don’t know what I would do if I were in one, on the East Coast, probably try to get out just as you did.

    Gablesgirl – Ha! Cocktails by the hurricane. I imagine my mother’s family did the same on Cape Cod.

    Andrea – I agree completely about the impact of terrorism on the individual’s experience of fear in an earthquake. But the broader geographical impact wouldn’t be known to the person at the time, so that would have an effect only by amplifying subsequent news coverage.

    Marsha – I agree, we do need to do better at living on this planet.

    Dawn – I sense you are the optimistic sort, and that your children benefit as a result:).

    Susan – By now he is probably telling you the whole thing was fun! All the tales of empty streets and camaraderie in the bodegas:).

  29. Hostess – Good for you. Definitely some wine. Even brandy…

    Staircase Witch – I hope all is well for Colonel X. My family is all fine. And it’s very interesting to me that physical scientists make their peace with randomness. That said, I rather like your vision.

    Marcela – Oh gosh. Of course, disasters are completely different when the infrastructure lags. Especially when corruption and terrible poverty collide. I am glad your brother in law was OK.

    Sarah – Thanks. I think the sandals would be right up your alley!

    Mater – That’s really true for many of us, I think. And is a sign of a good relationship, when we are really willing to put ourselves in someone else’s hands.

    Janey Ann – It sounds as though you understand the risks, and have made your peace with them anyway. I love California too.

  30. Meg – Glad you are all safe. And yes, we are reminded in these events how much the Eastern corridor dominates the US, in terms of population and institutional impact.

    Karen – Fascinating. So despite the intensity of the dangers in a place like Tel Aviv, the human response is the same as it is for vacation spots in North Carolina, or houses on the sides of California hills. Thank you for commenting.

    Marcela – I understand that we in the US take a large degree of physical safety for granted.

    Ron – Congrats on the World Series win!

    Morfydd – I wonder why we feel the earth isn’t supposed to move, when it obviously does. Very interesting. And I agree, if your first earthquake is 5.9, comes out of nowhere, you’re going to experience a lot of fear.

  31. I hear 5.8 on the richter is how we Califorians stir our coffe in the morning.

    I have been in 3 major earthquakes in my life. No biggy. It is what it is – prepare as best you can, then you clean up and move on. When I lived in Chicago for a few years, the possibility of tornados frightened me because I had no experience of them. Hurricanes would probably ellicit the same response. When I returned to CA and moved into my new little vintage apartmentment, there was an earthquake the first week I lived there. I curled up in my big reading chair, all comfy, and rode it out. I felt like CA was welcoming me home.

  32. It’s not all that uncommon, actually. 2003 also brought an earthquake and hurricane to Virginia. The earthquake definitely had more of a “cool” factor to it as it was pretty small. The hurricane that blew through was pretty bad, several friends were without power for weeks. WEEKS! That is a long time with no hot water. Virginians (the eastern variety, anyway) are pretty used to hurricanes blowing through, or the tropical storm that the hurricane has usually degraded to by the time it hits that area. No biggie, though I have not missed that weather since moving away to Chicago 6 years ago.

  33. When it comes to natural events, I feel armed by the wealth of information that can be used to increase chances of survival. Hurricanes can be tracked by path and intensity; tornadoes occur under a certain set of known conditions; earthquakes are related to fault lines which leads to probabilities by area. I feel incredibly lucky that I can pay attention and use my resources to plan ahead and make wise decisions.

    As an atheist with a nihilistic understanding of the world, I believe this chaotic universe behaves consistently. What I fear most are true random events. I tend to approach my whole existence by trying to comprehend and mitigate this randomness. I am given to analysis and planning for worst case scenarios in nearly every facet of life. I have this interesting internal threshold where I feel better once I feel I’ve reduced the statistical probability of some event and/or its negative consequences to the lowest achievable level possible for me. Maybe an extreme case of fearing what you must and not much more, but that’s how I work! :D

  34. We survived both events, although my Sunday looting plans were canceled, due to the storm downgrade.

    I was scared to death of volcanos as a child, where does that come from???? We barely had big hills in Westchester.

  35. Enjoyed your article, and especially found the comments interesting. I’m a native Californian so I grew up with earthquakes … I’ve lived in Hawaii for many years so I’ve been through several hurricanes and evacuated for tsunami warnings – both here and in Japan – more times than I can remember…then there were the riots in Korea. Anyway I really think it does all boil down to familarity and knowing how to be prepared. The only time I can remember feeling real fear was when I woke up in the middle of the night in my hotel in Tokyo because the TV had automatically turned on and there was a warning in Japanese flashing across the screen in big red letters … no clue what it said. Now THAT will get your heart pumping!

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