I never believed what people said about earthquakes. They are the granddaddy of all disasters. In a real earthquake and today’s qualified, you lose electricity, gas, and mobility all at once. You are in the dark, driving nowhere, and on the street with a half a million other fools wandering, hoping someone knows where we’re supposed to be going.
Darrel made me keep and maintain an earthquake kit under my desk, for years. A stupid super-LED flashlight which could run on three AAA batteries for sixteen hours. He insisted I have a pack of heavy duty batteries enough to run it for up to three months with limited use. It had three light modes, flashlight, a broad-light and strobe emergency. And a whole bunch of other things I never figured I would have to use. Within fifteen minutes of the eight point something quake, I was using everything that kit had to offer.
People had stared at the day-glow backpack under my desk for years. They watched me reload and recharge the food and water every six months. They sat behind me and clucked their tongues and shook their heads.
Until this evening. I would have been happy to hold it over their heads except they died during the quake, a pane of glass showered their corner office. I can still hear them screaming. The entire building didn’t come down; the earthquake casters did their job but some glass buildings still swayed more than their design allowed sending glass everywhere.
Now I am walking through the city toward the last spot we were supposed to meet. A day glow backpack, an energy reflecting poncho, my flashlight looped on my wrist and an extending baton in my other hand. I have an emergency whistle around my neck and a bandage on my left hand. Nothing serious, but I’ll probably want to get a tetanus shot whenever hospitals start working.
He wasn’t at Glide’s. The church and the surrounding neighborhood was untouched. Not a pane of glass was broken. No gas mains, no fires. People milled, confusion written on their faces an the air was filled with screaming, crying children; women trying to comfort them, bereft of all their electronic babysitters. Everyone was showing a bit of technological withdrawal. People pawing their phones, not realizing they should have turned them off hours ago, to conserve their charge. I knew I couldn’t get caught up in this. If he was going to be here, he would be here already; his job at the hotel meant he would be less than two miles from here.
He should have been here by now, so position two was a bust. Five minutes by cab. Thirty minutes by bus. Over an hour during an emergency with a million people trying to figure out how to get home during a blackout and night coming on. Did I mention it was raining this fine October evening?
Oh hell. He wasn’t at the hotel. He wasn’t at Glide’s. The last place to go was the Ferry Building. It would take me almost three hours to get there. People were frazzled. Landmarks were hard to spot. Impossible in fact. Have you ever had to navigate your city without streetlights? Trust me, it’s harder than it looks.
There were emergency vehicles everywhere, sirens, were really the only thing you heard on the street. Cars moved, slowly. Creeping along, a river of light on every street. On streets without policemen, citizens were directing traffic. Cars in destroyed areas were abandoned. Fires were being extinguished when they could be. Large fires were left to burn once people knew where their loved ones were.
At six, I turned my phone on for two minutes. No texts came through. Text services will be the only service to survive an earthquake because of the low bandwidth required. I texted him. FERRY.SEVENP.
He insisted we have short messages. More likely to be passed through. I would be at the ferry at seven.
It’s been four hours. The adrenaline is starting to wear off. I am beginning to feel the cold. I have begun to notice the rain. The too-small umbrella is not quite doing the job and now I am regretting not listening to Darrel, insisting on a cute umbrella rather than the ugly, grey, dull, expanding umbrella with extreme stress-tolerances he tried to put in my bag on three occasions.
Something about a light for easy identifying, and a bunch of other features he rambled on about, but I usually stopped listening halfway through his spiel. I’d get all focused on his lips and my attention would drift.
Serves me right. Everything else he suggested had kept me warm dry, easily identified, armed with light in a darkness so deep, I had never seen its like, fed and hydrated. I had to have my way, not realizing this was his way of showing me he loved me. At least that’s how I thought about it. We’d been drifting apart lately. I blamed it on work. He blamed it on my inattentiveness. We were probably both right.
There’s no way to hurry. The crush of the bodies has us moving more like a wave, of rising and falling umbrellas, sweeping around everything in our path. Tiny constellations of lights flickering in between the shadows as people feeling their smallness, illuminated the space around them, consecrating themselves as something that mattered in this long and horrible night.
When we reached the Hyatt on the Embarcadero, I could see car lights on the bridge. They were barely moving. I don’t know if the bridges are safe, but I wouldn’t be using them anyway, till someone said they were. That’s why this is our third meeting spot. We would be using the ferry to get back to the East Bay. They were directing us here, so I am going to assume that would be part of the city’s emergency evacuation plan as well.
There was a wall of emergency vehicles blocking our path. People were being redirected. The ferry building had collapsed. As the news swept through the crowd, I could feel my resolve draining out of me, the strong, resolute me.
The hard part of me which got me out of the building where I worked, stepping over dead or dying coworkers. The diamond-hard me which turned my back on people in need at the church, the cold me which galvanized my push through this sea of lesser people, people who had succumbed to their fears, given in to their doubts, those people who had not prepared. The preparation which made me more mentally agile for a few hours longer than most.
That me was finally admitting to being cold, wet, and goddamned tired.
A small light hanging off my bag started flashing. Slowly at first. I didn’t pay this little thing any attention. A tiny and hard plastic disk. Blah, blah, blah, durable light… I promise, baby. If we get home, I promise to listen to any of your emergency lectures like the word of God.
It’s too early to be bargaining with God. It’s going to be a long night. Five hours pass and I am getting close to boarding one of the many ferries shuttling people to Oakland. The small light went out and then came back on several times during the night. It was flashing faster now. Probably the fastest it had been all night. I heard a whistle, someone’s emergency whistle, shrill and really damned annoying.
I reach down to my neck and start looking around. I see an umbrella with a light on it. Small, bright and flashing with the same pattern as mine. Then I remember! It’s Morse Code. He said it was an app which would help a person find members of a group who all shared the same app frequency. It was normally used for students to find each other at parties, but was later adapted for search and rescue technology.
It had to be him. I try to run, but mostly its just a slow jumble of bodies, resistant to change, chilled to near-immobility, my heat, my enthusiasm melted my path, they fell away, eager to be away from whatever emergency I might have.
He looked up from his phone, turning it off as he met my gaze. “You figured it out.” His face lit up, but it was worn and tired. He had that crease between his eyebrows which shows up whenever he’s been using his phone too long.
I could see his critical gaze assessing my outfit, to see how much of his plan I had chosen to implement. He reached out to my hands, smiled and pulled me close to him. I could not stop the tears.
“How is it, you’re using your phone instead of saving battery power like you told me to do?”
“I carry extra, charged batteries. I knew I would need them to run the search app. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance; the five P’s We talked about this just last week?”
His famed “five P’s speech. He continues his ramble on about how he had been able to lock onto my position and move toward me over the last five hours. I really wanted to listen to the mechanics of it, but all I could hear was his voice, the oh so familiar, timber, cadence of his speech.
I could admit I was afraid I would never hear it again. I said I would listen to any explanation about his tech toys, gleefully. I promised. The two in the morning chill slices through us and the emergency blanket we were given. As we board the ferry for the cold ride home, I just snuggle up and fade into his arms.
He launches into another tech talk, I think just as much to distract himself as we pull away from the pier. We can both see the fires in the distance behind us and ahead of us. I try to be attentive but my endurance flags. We still have a long night ahead of us.
Maybe I can start keeping that promise, tomorrow.
Emergency Kit © Thaddeus Howze 2016. All Rights Reserved
Earthquake Preparedness: An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the earth’s surface. Earthquakes strike suddenly, without warning, and they can occur at any time of the year, day or night. Forty-five states and territories in the United States are at moderate to very high risk of earthquakes, and they are located in every region of the country. Learn how to prepare for an earthquake with the following safety tips provided by the American Red Cross.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter. Please support his writings on Patreon.