A tremor in the earth and the psyche

Well, that was different.

It's not every day that the Mid-Atlantic experiences a magnitude 5.8 earthquake, but that 10 seconds of shake, rattle and roll you felt this afternoon wasn't a train, a hurricane or the sound of budget negotiations in Washington. It was the real thing.


By the standards of earthquake hotspots around the world, a 5.8 is a minor amusement. The earthquake that rocked Japan this year hit 9.0, meaning it released about 63,000 times as much energy. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are about 1,300 earthquakes a year worldwide that register between 5.0 and 5.9. The agency tracks about 50 earthquakes a day.

For the East Coast, though, 5.8 was enough to overload telephone networks and send crowds pouring into the streets for fear that office buildings were in danger of imminent collapse. Municipal employees as far away as New York were sent home as a precaution.


After the dust settled, the damage appeared to be minor — even in the Richmond, Va., area where the temblor was centered. Perhaps the biggest impact was the weirdness of it all. Most living in the East have probably never felt an earthquake as powerful, and that experience can be unnerving even to the most levelheaded.

Beyond that, it's an event that's hard to make sense of.

We've had rainstorms aplenty of late, some doozies of blizzards, a tropical storm that flooded the waterfront up and down the Chesapeake and the occasional tornado. But an earthquake felt throughout Maryland, and as far south as the Carolinas and as far north as Toronto? That's a new one.

Preliminary reports found no serious damage in the Baltimore area, and residents seemed confused about how to handle an event that at once seemed monumental and inconsequential, a strange interlude in an otherwise lovely late summer day that will probably fade before long to a vague memory.

Baltimore activated its emergency center, and downtown sidewalks were crowded with office workers milling about, waiting for an all-clear to return to their desks. Some major airports briefly halted flights; East Coast trains stopped on the tracks; and parts of the Pentagon, White House and Capitol were evacuated. President Barack Obama's round of golf was interrupted on Martha's Vineyard.

But city traffic, meanwhile, continued unimpeded, less affected by the displacement of tectonic plates than it would be by a minor fender bender.

What is most striking is the randomness of it all. Though an earthquake is probably on some government agency's list of things we should be prepared for, it's likely not one that anyone in this area has put much thought into. This event is a reminder, perhaps, that we should all be prepared for the unexpected — have an emergency kit with water, medical supplies, flashlights, radios, batteries, etc. — but if back-to-back blizzards of 2010 didn't convince you of that, a pair of sudden but short-lived shocks probably won't do the trick.

The real lesson of the quake is that anything can happen at any time. As much as we have mastered our world, we can, in an instant, be rendered insignificant. As unsettling as that is, it is also a reminder of our commonality; in the face of the cosmic, there is little that distinguishes us one from another, and much that binds us together. That wisdom is often bought at a painful cost. If we can walk away from this event with that realization, this afternoon's quake could be earth-shaking indeed.