Falling Sky

            February of 2001 was already down to its last 24 hours and I was training a dozen thoroughbred racehorses at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Washington.  I was significantly behind in my work and the time was approaching 11:00 AM; it was one of those days where nothing was going smoothly.  Normally, I could count on having all of my horses trained, cleaned, and fed by 10:30—by 11:00 I’d be showered and eating lunch.  Today, however, I still had one horse on the track and one on the mechanical walker; my much-needed shower was not going to happen any time soon.  It was auspicious, as it turned out, that I was still with my charges; moments later, at 10:54 AM, the largest earthquake in more than 50 years rolled through the greater Seattle area (Nisqually).  Chimneys tumbled, foundations and bridges cracked, telephone poles toppled, and people and horses alike were left bewildered and afraid.  This quake was not “the big one” (Yeats 51); nevertheless, it was big enough for me to rethink my choice of locations for a training site and for many thousands of residents in the Puget Sound area to prepare for a potential worst-case scenario.

I remember getting the “bejeebers” scared out of me as a child when I saw “Beneath the Planet of the Apes;” the Earth opened up and Charlton Heston fell into a huge, flaming chasm.  For years after, when I came to cracks in the sidewalk, I had to make these exaggerated, Carl Lewis-like leaps so that I would be sure to clear the abyss should it widen during my passing.  While the earth does not actually swallow people in this manner (Earthquakes), it does shake and move with enough regularity and force that, every year over 20,000 lives (Menke) and billions of dollars are lost due to these unstoppable forces (Shedlock).                           

Geologists estimate that catastrophic earthquakes, those with magnitudes of 8.0 or higher, occur in the Seattle area on a fairly regular basis (Yeats 35).  This quake, known as the Nisqually Earthquake, had a magnitude of 6.8 (Nisqually).  For every full point increase in the magnitude of an earthquake there is about a 30-fold increase in energy; consequently, a quake of magnitude 8.4, such as the 1964 Good Friday Alaskan Earthquake, has roughly the same destructive power as 42 earthquakes the size of the Nisqually (Yeats 33). Still, the Nisqually temblor cracked the Capitol Building in Olympia, rendered the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle unsafe, and it even tweaked my portable stalls in Auburn until they stood at precarious sixty-degree angles like so many discarded pasteboard boxes.  I shudder to think what might have happened had I not been there to brace the stalls and protect my horses.  Doubtless, the damage from one of these more powerful quakes will dramatically alter the prominent Seattle skyline in a manner not unlike the display of toilet tissue at Wal-Mart through which I inadvertently wade on a semi-regular basis.  Frighteningly, every multistory structure in Anchorage, a city with a mere fraction of the population and infrastructure of Seattle, sustained damage during the 1964 quake (Lutgens 300).

This was one of those events where memories get distorted and become conveniently selective.  Damage and danger double with each retelling and even those who were on vacation or otherwise absent recount, with harrowing sobriety, the terrific perils they faced as well as the bravery they exhibited.  In the ensuing days, my neighbors and I swapped stories of what we thought and how we felt.  As I listened to a fellow trainer liken the experience to his time in Alaska on deep-sea fishing vessels, which then gave him license to ramble on endlessly of near death experiences and epic feats of heroism, it occurred to me that this guy was scared.  Everyone around me was scared; I was scared.  This was not a fear about what we had all just experienced, but more a fear of what could have and probably would happen when the “big one” does come.  It wasn’t as though a defective SCUD missile (I know, probably redundant) had struck us and we could now mop our collective brows and breathe a big sigh of relief; no, it was clear that this was a warning shot from a much more formidable and destructive force—Mother Nature!

The day prior to the earthquake I had been looking around the Enumclaw area for some acreage near the racetrack.  Ironically, I later discovered that Mutual of Enumclaw is one of the largest earthquake insurance brokers in the U.S. (Virgin).  It was exciting to look around the area and imagine life among the beautiful forests, fertile farmland, and spectacular mountain peaks—VOLCANIC mountain peaks.  The following day, the very forces that created those mountains would shake the land almost as violently as Jimmy Swaggert’s lower lip when asking for forgiveness for his sexual transgressions.  On that day, as I hunkered down during the interminable, train-wreck-like cataclysm, I knew that I would not be purchasing property here any time soon.

Despite the historic volatility of the region, earthquake insurance is simply not something I had ever considered; heretofore, I would have been more likely to purchase alien-abduction insurance.  Bill Virgin, of the Seattle PI, indicates that there was an increase of around 12 percent in the number of earthquake insurance policies purchased immediately following the Nisqually quake.  Virgin goes on to state that, in response to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, insurance companies restructured all standard policies so as not to include damage from earthquakes; if people want earthquake protection they now need a completely separate policy.  Many people, unaware of the need for the additional coverage, will likely not be protected against earthquake damage.  Moreover, as a function of the Nisqually Earthquake, the prices on these policies will jump anywhere from 20 to 700 percent over the next year (Fryer).  When I added these additional costs to the area’s intrinsic dangers, like the Road Runner awaiting the falling anvil, my choice was to continue moving.

Intellectually, I know that life is filled with risk.  I’m not “Chicken Little” irrationally fearing for my life at every turn; I’m a realist.  Perhaps leaping sidewalks is not the answer but simply closing one’s eyes to the hazards inherent to the region strikes me as being foolhardy.  Clearly, if I stand in the middle of a freeway I’m more likely to be struck by a car than if I move off to the side.  If I apply this very basic principle here, it makes no sense for me to remain in an area where awaiting “the big one” is not a matter of if, but when.   While most residents of the area probably still have no clear idea that the worst is yet to come, many were legitimately frightened enough by the experience to make the changes necessary to avoid the impending lemming-like fate of their uninformed counterparts.


Works Cited

Earthquakes: Frequently Asked Questions. U.S. Geological Survey. 10 May 2002


Fryer, Alex. “Quake Insurance Goes Through the Roof.” Seattle Times 18 Dec. 2001

Local News <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/


Lutgens, Frederick K. and Edward J. Tarbuck. Essentials of Geology. Upper Saddle

River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Menke, William H. “Earthquake.” 1998 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Danbury, CT:

Grolier Interactive, 1997

Nisqually Earthquake. U of Washington. 9 May 2002



Shedlock, Kaye M. and Louis C. Pakiser. United States. U.S. Geological Survey.     

Earthquakes. Washington: GPO, 1994.

Virgin, Bill. “Insurance? Many Have Jolt Coming.”  Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2 March

2001 Business <http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/insurance011.shtml>

Yeats, Robert S. Living With Earthquakes In The Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, Or: 

Oregon State University Press, 1998.