Shaky ground: Aftermath of the earthquake

Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 9/1/11.

It seems Mother Nature has us on edge lately. First there was the earthquake on Aug. 23. And now, as I write this column, Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the East Coast and looking to head our way. Naturally, this development has put our easily panicked population into full-on disaster mode.

Locally, memories of recent floods in Rutland (and even more recently in Barre) and the not-soon-to-be-forgotten Nor’icane of ’07 hang heavy, giving people good reason to take the forecast seriously.

I’ll save my Irene coverage for next week (if it doesn’t blow out to sea, that is). This week, it’s all about earthquakes.

Centered in Virginia, the last Tuesday’s 5.8 magnitude quake was felt up and down the East Coast, including here in Rutland. And I missed it. I was in the Herald newsroom at the time, which, while technically above ground, feels very much like a bunker. I didn’t feel a thing. Though, being a newsroom, the story quickly broke.

Earthquakes are a rarity in Vermont so, when do they occur, it’s cause for conversation. Naturally, the news media leapt into action to help facilitate that conversation. A Google News search of “Vermont earthquake” yielded a wealth of stories. A quick scan of the headlines also proved to be an entertaining analysis of how different news organizations were choosing to frame the story.

Not surprisingly, Vermont Public Radio kept it dry and professional with their headline, “No Serious Damage Reported In Vt. From Quake.”

Likewise, the Rutland Herald and Times Argus took the straight-ahead approach with “Vermonters react to 5.9 quake that rocks East Coast; DC monuments closed; phones jammed.” Though I prefer brevity in my headlines, the story was a thorough collection of firsthand, local reports as well as a collection of wire reports from up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press decided to play the panic card by asking, “Is it time to consider earthquake insurance?”

Up in Burlington, Vermont’s most wired and en-Twittered city, the Free Press went with “Earthquake sends Vermonters to social media.” I’ll admit, I groaned when I saw this one. Reporters turning to Facebook and Twitter for news is almost a cliché now — I do it every other week — and while it might be a useful way to get firsthand reports during earthquakes like the one in Japan, reading about someone who spilled their soy latte at Muddy Waters in “#BTV” is not news.

While I’m busting on Burlington, I also enjoyed WCAX’s headline: “Earthquake more easily felt in Burlington than in other areas.” My first thought was, “Of course, they did — everyone knows Phisheads and hipsters have the ability to sense earthquakes just like dogs and other animals.”

The story actually provided an interesting and far more scientific explanation. According to Vermont State Geologist Larry Becker via WCAX, “the ripple effects from the quake travel quickly up the East Coast because the bedrock underneath is cold and old. … Burlington is especially suseptable (SIC) to these shakes because the city sits on a bed of soft soil.”

Makes sense. Though, I still like my theory better.

Finally, the Brattleboro Reformer put it all into perspective with their story, “Vt. has had earthquakes before.” (I wonder if there was any debate in the newsroom to include “morons” to the end of that headline.)

Lest we fear that the quake (and the impending hurricane) is some sort of divine retribution prayed up by Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann to punish us East Coast elites, the Reformer, citing information from the U.S, Geological Survey, was there to set the record straight.

Historically, Vermont has seen its share of Earthquakes. In 1638, a quake centered in the St. Lawrence Valley, rattled across all of New England. Vermont and the Northeast experienced several more over the next two centuries, including a “major earthquake ” on Nov. 18, 1755, near Cape Ann, Mass., that was felt at great distances.

The USGS also mentioned a “moderately strong earthquake in the Rutland area” on Mach 31, 1953. “Houses trembled, some furniture was moved, knicknacks fell, and other small objects were disturbed at Brandon and Rutland,” the report says.

Another earthquake centered in western Vermont occurred on April 10, 1962 (which I only mention because April 10 is my birthday).

On June 14, 1973, there was another small tremor in the Rutland area. My parents actually remember this one. They were playing tennis at the time when they felt the ground shake. Inside their house, they noted that my sister’s bed had been shaken across the room from the force.

A 5.1 quake in Au Sable Forks, N.Y., on the morning of April 20, 2002, was also felt in Rutland. This one I actually noticed, though at the time, not for what it was. I was working at WEBK, a now extinct radio station based in Rutland.

Sitting in the studio with fellow DJ Spider Glenn, we felt the building shake, but disregarded it as traffic or the ventilation system. Moments later, the reports came across the wires. Not missing a beat, Spider compiled his “Earthquake Set,” which included “Shaky Ground” and “I Feel the Earth Move.”

“This is why live radio matters!” he shouted in between fielding calls from concerned listeners.

A side note: In researching this column, I stumbled upon a message board for the band Phish, where a Burlington poster had dubbed the 2002 quake the “420 Wake and Shake,” which I believe reinforces my aforementioned theory about hippies’ preternatural abilities.

Between ’02 and last week there have been several more tremors, but all of little consequence. And that’s really what I noticed. In all the Vermont earthquake accounts, the most common result furniture and objects getting tossed around. Even the above USGS account from Rutland only mentioned knickknacks getting disturbed.

Given the devastation wrought be earthquakes elsewhere — especially in recent months — our casual experience with the phenomenon can feel inappropriate or even insensitive. In Vermont, the experience is a novelty: we get shaken about, talk about it for a day or so and then return to our lives safe with the knowledge that that (hopefully) is as bad as earthquakes will get here.

My friend Will, who happens to be visiting week from San Francisco, was amused all the fuss over our 5.8 quake, but ultimately realistic: “Let me know when you guys have a 6.0 out here,” he said. “Then, we’ll talk.”

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