All Shook Up


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

My house and garage, well beyond the reach of storms and tides…but what about a tsunami?

My house and garage, well beyond the reach of storms and tides…but what about a tsunami?

Last night we had a big earthquake and a warning to immediately head for high ground.

First, an instant wake-up at midnight–the house rattling, creaking, and shuddering, then heavier jolts accompanied by deep protracted rumbles. I splayed out on the bed, totally elated, savoring the power and racket, then relaxing as the jostles eased after about a minute

The quake–magnitude 7.5–was centered 110 miles south of Sitka, where I live. About fifteen minutes later the tsunami sirens started wailing. The radio warned everyone to evacuate low-lying areas. The phone rang—friends making sure I hadn’t miraculously snoozed through the jostle and fracas.

I dug out a recorder, switched it on, and talked breathlessly as I grabbed stuff and stumbled down to the truck, then shined a flashlight on the beach before taking off. Everything looked normal and quiet 15 minutes ahead of the tsunami’s predicted arrival.

I drove toward the high school emergency center, but turned back because of stalled traffic, and ended up back near home watching the water from a high point on the shore. I felt intense excitement, mixed with twinges of fear and dread. Videos of the 2012 Japan disaster have revolutionized my sense for the phenomenal power and inexorability of a tsunami.

Anyway, I watched the beach until long after the predicted tsunami time, then called my high-ground friends to give an all-quiet report. Sometime later the warning was officially canceled.

My brother Dave Nelson, an avid seismographer, explains that this big quake didn’t cause a tsunami because the sea-floor displacement was HORIZONTAL (slip-strike) rather than vertical (thrust)…meaning there was no giant “plunger” to force up masses of water that create destructive waves.

Much as I love to see natural power, I’m profoundly grateful that no tsunami occurred, that nobody suffered damage or injuries. And above all, I’m grateful for this chance to actually feel the earth move, to glimpse the immense geological forces that have shaped our mountains and valleys, oceans and continents.

This morning, almost 12 hours after the quake, Dave’s graphs registered seismic waves still traveling around and through the earth. Detectable only by sophisticated technology, the planet hadn’t yet settled down. However inert the physical terrain might feel, in fact it’s a constantly moving, perpetually changing, endlessly evolving mass.

I absolutely love the fact that the earth can show us—in this clear, unambiguous, viscerally unforgettable way—that it’s alive. And we’re just along for the ride.

Mark Bethka