Earthquake wake-up call

A trembler learns where on the Web to go to find out about Sunday night's temblor.
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The epicenter of Sunday's earthquake in Oregon. (USGS)

A trembler learns where on the Web to go to find out about Sunday night's temblor.

For those who have not spent much time in California, knowledge of earthquakes can be largely theoretical. All I know comes from disaster movies, with no understanding of the science involved.

At about 11:20 last night, Sept. 23, a time when any sensible person is deep in a trashy novel, the framed pictures on our walls in Portland started rattling. The room had the motion of a bus trundling along a slightly uneven street; it lasted several seconds.

In the time it took to walk 10 feet to the computer and type "earthquake Portland Oregon September 23" into Google, some 17 others had already found and used the nifty U.S. Geological Survey site that gathers info about quakes.

The site is a big improvement over the government-issue natural disaster tools of the past. The user-friendly maps and questionnaire are perfect for the slightly (or very) nervous citizen hoping for info, pronto. (Most of Portland's TV news channels didn't cover the story until later, despite the quake's considerate timing during the late-news hour.)

Questions on the site are definitely shaped for the layperson, asking simply whether household objects rattled or fell or broke; if we had trouble standing up. (One assumes this is not prying, but a query strictly related to the geologic event.) It asks about our behavior at the time of the quake, wisely offering the "took no action" choice right next to the "moved to doorway" option we completely forgot at the time.

The site's intended purpose, to gather data from the field, is carried out quickly. By the following morning, 576 more folks had weighed in on the "Did you feel it?" questionnaire about the 3.6 magnitude earthquake with its epicenter under Brooks, Ore. The site leaves no doubt about who is claiming what; when a geologic map is updated by computer, it notes "Not updated by human," a confession that all government-maintained databases ought to cop to from time to time.

The USGS site's less-quantifiable benefits are also quite valuable. Those of us who, post-quake, spent the next hour assembling shoes, water, protein bars, keys, flashlight, reading material, and moisturizer, in order to flee during any subsequent geologic shake-ups, eventually slept a little easier knowing that some responsible folks were keeping tabs on the situation.


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