Earthquake

At 8:42 this morning, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake began 25 kilometers underground near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. My graduate student and I were en route to our field site.

Not paying attention to the time, we were walking down the concrete portion of the trail, each of us lost in her own thoughts, when it occurred to me that my feet were not the only things moving on the trail. I stopped, and the first thought in my head was of a simulator ride, not a small jerky one at a low-budget museum exhibit, but a high-tech, smoothly gliding one, that was slowly moving in circles, and taking me with it. Then I looked up at the trees, the tops of which were rolling in even larger circles, and remembered that actually, this was really the forest, and it was moving.

Years of earthquake drills in school classrooms have ingrained particular reactions into my head–get under a desk and cover your neck; brace yourself in a doorway; move into a clear, open space; above all, get away from glass–but this was the middle of the rainforest. There were no glass windows, no desks or doorways, not even a nearby open space. It took me a few seconds to dish up the reasoning behind those instructions, and apply them to our current situation. We stayed on the trail, which gave up some clear space at the best and visibility at the least, near to a large tree that would hopefully break anything else’s fall, and waited to make sure the quake was over.

In a forest where rainstorms frequently bring down entire trees, not a single branch fell. Feeling somewhat excited, but not overwhelmingly so, we proceeded to our fieldsite and got to work.

An hour or so later, three of La Selva’s guards walked by on the trial. We were a little ways into the forest, but fairly visible and listening to loud music, so they saw us easily, and one of them called out to her.

We nodded and said hello, but they stopped and asked us to call Bernal, the lab manager, on our radio. One guard mentioned the earthquake, and I nodded yes, with a smile. Only after a few more minutes of explanations in Spanish did we realize that they were telling us to call in to confirm that we had survived the earthquake, that they were in facet here to look for us and the other researchers in the field, to make sure everyone was okay. After they left, it finally struck me that those few moments of un-simulated earthquake might have been a bigger deal than we’d thought.

When we returned to the station, everyone was talking about the quake. How they’d felt it, what they’d thought, and just how big it had actually been. Very fortunately, all of our friends were completely fine; in fact, the earthquake seemed to have done relatively minor damage across the country, and none at the station.

Even in our office, everything was in its place. The glass-fronted cabinet was undamaged, the bags of drying soil sat still up on the high shelves over our desks. Everything seemed fine, until I tried to close the door.

Our office door has caused us difficulty from the beginning. Because the wall and the door are not quite lined up, locking the door requires pulling it strongly and quickly shut at the same moment as turning the key. There’s a certain touch to it we’ve developed over the past few weeks, and now I can lock the door on the first slam. But today, no matter how many times I slammed, pulled, and twisted, the door would not come close enough to the doorjam for me to lock it.

After ten minutes of struggle, I asked the lab director for help; he discovered that the makeshift wall at the front of our office had shifted just slightly, and the extra angle made the door impossible to close. We could have easily been frustrated as we packed up our gear and equipment to move to another office, but all I could feel was grateful that after such a huge earthquake moved the station, the only thing broken was the office door.

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