One of the easy things about living in New England is that we get a little bit of everything when it comes to the natural phenomena that afflict parts of the United States, without anything being particularly extreme. We get hurricanes, but less often and intense than Florida. Heat waves, but less than Arizona. Snow, but not as much as upstate New York. There have even been tornadoes, but far smaller and rarer than those in Kansas.
Two months ago, our town got a mild taste of a new phenomenon: earthquakes. On January 8th, a 2.0 magnitude quake struck Danielson, a few miles from where we live. Over the next week, the town of Plainfield experienced a dozen earthquakes, ranging from 0.4 to 3.3 on the Richter scale. Many people in the area described the quakes as loud, booming sounds. In some houses, pictures fell off walls during the larger quakes, while others went unnoticed. Jason and I experienced only the largest, which shook our building for a brief moment. The next day we experienced another, which was so faint we couldn’t agree whether it was in fact an earthquake or just our upstairs neighbor dropping something heavy.
For us, the quakes were nothing more than a highly unexpected oddity. We had never expected to experience an earthquake, to feel one firsthand was kind of cool. I feel guilty admitting that, as I do realize that other, larger earthquakes have had disastrous results, such as Haiti’s 7.0 quake in 2010, which killed over 100,000 people and devastated an already deeply impoverished area. I do not take this lightly, and am grateful that our own episode was mild enough to prompt curiosity and amusement on our part, rather than the suffering that it has brought to others.
After a week of these small quakes, the town held a meeting at the local high school, inviting a seismologist from Boston College to speak to those with questions and concerns. Jason and I decided to go, partly for information and partly for the sake of posterity. If we’re going to regale our future grandkids about the week in 2015 when olde Plainfield was quite unexpectedly hit by a series of earthquakes, we felt it was important to be able to add, “And it got so bad, they brought in an expert allll the way from Boston to talk to the townsfolk.” Old-timey yarns require some advance planning.
As we approached the high school, it was immediately apparent that the townsfolk had definitely turned out for this event. Traffic was backed up (yet another novel occurrence in our town) and even the cops on duty seemed to be surprised by the congestion. Inside, we found that a few hundred other residents had come to hear the talk, in addition to several news crews lining the aisles with notepads and cameras.
The meeting began with an introduction of the various officials: first selectman, chief of police, fire chief and building inspector. A brief summary of the week’s events was followed with an introduction of the guest speaker, seismologist Alan Kafka from Boston College’s Weston Observatory. Dr. Kafka mentioned that the first week of classes was beginning at the college, and that he was slightly nervous for the large class size he was teaching this semester, but that facing this room, he was already learning to adjust to addressing a large group. He began his presentation, which was informative and scientific. It was certainly clear that he was accustomed to speaking in a classroom environment, as the content and delivery of his talk was very professorial. As recent graduate students and teachers ourselves, Jason and I enjoyed feeling like we were back in the classroom, and learning, for example, that the large booming sound that people were reporting was an indication that the earthquakes were very shallow. Dr. Kafka also explained that fault lines are everywhere, and that being on a fault is not necessarily an indicator that there will be an earthquake. His presentation included maps of past earthquakes in Connecticut (apparently, they do happen more often than one might guess) and a table with the typical impact of various magnitude earthquakes on the Richter scale.
It was twenty minutes into this lesson that a woman’s voice suddenly yelled out from the crowd: “We aren’t students in one of your classes! What does any of this have to do with us? We want to know what’s going on here… everything you’re saying is information we’ve already looked up on the Internet. A lot of us have taken time off work to come here and listen to this, and we have questions that we’d like to have answered!”
Nothing represents your town better than a woman telling a visiting expert that she already knows everything he has said because she has internet access. It was a bit embarrassing, knowing that this man had unexpectedly taken time from a very busy week (again, the start of classes for Boston College) to provide information for us. The first selectman intervened and asked the crowd if we would like to open the floor to questions or let Dr. Kafka continue with his planned presentation. Many of us yelled “presentation,” but the squeakier wheels in the room overruled, and a runner with a microphone began making the rounds so that people could ask questions, rather than waiting until the end of the talk.
The questions weren’t much better than the original outburst. In most cases, people wanted to know if we would be getting a larger earthquake, and when we could expect it. As he had already explained, there was no real way of knowing if we would get another, nor could we predict how big it would be. This didn’t prevent people from continuing to ask, with at least four people inquiring how much damage their specific houses would sustain, offering information such as foundation type and address in hopes that it would result in a certain prognosis. In matters relating to houses, the building inspector stepped in and gave the logical advice that really, they should check for cracks in their foundation, monitor any changes, and if concerned arrange for a specific meeting. Meanwhile, the seismologist directed the slide show back to the table explaining what sort of damage typically accompanied each magnitude on the Richter scale. However, people continued to take the mic, informing the speaker of the location of their house, how old it was, and then ask for the seismic weather forecast.
As frustrating as this was, it seemed to reveal something interesting about the modern need for certainty. This is not surprising: the weather is predicted ten days in advance. The cause and severity of health problems, although not entirely assured, is clearer than ever before. News from around the world is immediately and widely accessible. There is so little left to wait for or wonder about, since most information is a smartphone search away.
The demand for answers is even more understandable when one’s safety and property are at risk, even when the likelihood of real damage is, in this case, rather small. However, I found myself considering the ways that people reacted to such things in centuries past. Would they have accepted that there were things that they couldn’t know for sure? Or would they have been even more concerned? Would they have misplaced their desire for answers in superstition and mythology, instead? For example, the Japanese woodcuts depict a giant underground catfish named Namazu, who was to blame for the shaking earth. The Norse believed that Fenris, a ferocious wolf, was chained underground so as to prevent Ragnarök, or the end of the world. These stories indicate that perhaps we always have needed answers; we’ve just gotten better with the accuracy.
In the end, we came away with a brief education on seismology, little certainty about the future, some handy information about earthquake insurance, and a complete narrative to tell our offspring one day, who might themselves marvel at the fact that we lived in such uncertain times.