007.2 - Shaken, Not Stirred

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

007.2 - Shaken, Not Stirred - April 5/6, 2010

The title of an old Country & Western song describes yesterday's earthquake fairly succinctly: "Mama Get the Hammer (There's a Fly on Papa's Head)"

The 7.2 earthquake on April 4th, by far the strongest I've experienced in my 25 years of reposing in the turnip row of the San Felipe horticultural experiment, was the hammer that knocked the flies off my head and in the process stretched the definition of the town's 'No Bad Days' motto.

I was in the middle of a conversation with a cell phone user when the quake arrived. The connection went dead in the middle of the sentence, "Whoa! Feels like an earthq---- ."

My office is a renovated steel container which once sat on a truck that parsed the American highways during a long career of freight deliveries. It now rests on my ejido lot, its heavy frame supported by a bed of compacted red soil and gravel. At the onset of the quake the entire container gave a fair impression of a paint shaker, which is why I thought it was a good idea to elvis the building while my hair was still free of falling debris.

It seems there are a number of subtle biological timepieces that police various inner and outer systems. We are sensitive to our own circadian rhythms, to the steady beating of our hearts, the cyclical bellows of respiration, the daily arcs of the sun's plunge into darkness, the seasonal precession of the zodiac, even the periodicity of the workingman's anticipation of the next long weekend. We also appear to have a sensor that alerts us to any abuse delivered to the axis of some kind of inner gyroscope. This sensor is evidently linked to the element of duration.

Road Damage Near Mexicali

Once outside in the open, I could feel the earthquake galloping across the ejido, emitting a very low throat growl as it moved. Its 'S' waves bucked against my body's gyroscope at the points where the two met, which were the bottoms of my sandals. My legs instinctually spread apart to harvest as much balance as possible and my arms raised themselves parallel to the ground for the same reason. The sensation was like surfing a sea of high frequency waves.

For the first few seconds there was no fear or concern. Then my body registered a duration violation of its gyroscope's natural state and each second that ticked beyond that initial alert opened successive sluice gates that dumped adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine into the bloodstream. These molecules were expressed straight to the brain where they evoked visual memories of various disaster movies. Visions of the ground opening up at my feet, steam vents rending the road, mountains crumbling like marzipan cakes and tree roots unclenching the earth all joined the sudden fight or flight chemical cocktail which brought about a peculiar paralysis of expectation. Then I heard a noise like a loose hood latch on a truck knocking along an ejido back road and turned to see my 32 foot fifth wheel rocking on its jack stands. I, in turn, was bouncing up and down in concert with it.

The waves passed after an unregistered lapse of time, maybe 20 seconds, maybe 20 minutes. Once the gyroscope is disrupted, eternities are swallowed by eyeblinks. But it seemed things became calm again rather quickly, even as my body continued its refusal to move. I held my ground in an enhanced state of awareness, ears acute to any basso rumblings, limbs poised like the spars of assayer's scales, ready to be tipped by the slightest groundswell. Then the first aftershock arrived and the ground roiled like an enormous snapped garden hose. The 5th wheel shuddered and rattled. Then everything became quiet again, except for the barking of neighborhood dogs.

I went inside and used my laptop to check the USGS site for information about the quake. The internet was still active, which was surprising because in the past a light sprinkle of rain or a stiff breeze was enough to cripple it for hours.

The website had already logged the event and declared it a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. I was loading maps and reports when another aftershock shook the ground. After refreshing the event map page a few times, I learned the aftershocks were registering over 5 on the Richter Scale.

Websites with quake reports were appearing on Google searches within 20 minutes of the event. A humorous video clip showed a young girl in front of her webcam preparing to accompany background music with her guitar just as the earthquake struck. Her expression, as the webcam did jumping jacks on her desk, was devoid of everything but a preternatural alertness as her mind tried to process what was happening. Then the duration alarm signaled and her expression clouded as she stood up and went to the window, out of sight of the video lens. Meanwhile the room continued to jump up and down, then became still and quiet. There was silence for a long time, and from somewhere stage right came a surprisingly gentle expletive. The girl unsteadily returned to her desk, obviously unsure about what to do next. Then she reached out and cut the video feed.

Forums and blogs began to carry opinions and impressions. Someone declared that Mexicali lay in ruins.

Over the next few hours people telephoned with the latest rumors. The highway suffered severe damage. Mexicali was in a power blackout. People were being turned away at the Ensenada turnoff. Mexicali was declared a disaster area by Osuna Millán. The president of Mexico is on his way to Mexicali. Roads to San Felipe, Tijuana and San Luis Valley are severely damaged. Massive lineups at the gas stations. Flooding in the Valley. Twenty seven fires broke out in Mexicali. The west border crossing was closed. Another large quake was predicted and expected.

An hour or more later, the quake had been upgraded to magnitude 7.2. This new ranking significantly surpassed the force of the 1989 earthquake that caused so much highway damage in the San Francisco area.

Then, about four hours after the earthquake, the internet went down. And forty eight hours later, it is still down. One can only imagine a Tijuana or Mexicali backhoe operator, in his zeal to effect repairs, tore through a main trunk feed at the Telnor offices, or at least their server location. Why else would there be a four hour drum roll before the cymbals clashed?

It would seem rumorquakes and earthquakes travel at roughly the same velocity. Which one leaves more damage and confusion in its wake is open to debate.

Update: The internet came to life again at about 3:30 PM April 6.

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