Thursday, August 25, 2011

The East Coast Earthquake and Other DC Disasters

On Tuesday, August 23rd at 1:51 PM much of the east coast of the United States experienced an earthquake. As a homeless advocate, I must say that I'm glad that there weren't any reports of serious damage to non-governmental buildings and, as far as I know, no one was made homeless by this earthquake. However, the wall near my bed at the CCNV Shelter now has a hirzontal crack and I'm wondering how much of this large building which holds 1,350 homeless people (one-fifth of DC's homeless population) has now been compromised.

At the time that the quake struck, I was walking down the sidewalk toward the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library where a lady friend and I were planning to feed and show the movie "Freedom Riders" to a large group of homeless people. As I passed by the construction site which is adjacent to the library, I noticed that many of the workers were standing idle and heard one of them say that he heard a rumble which he thought was a subway train passing by underground. His statement didn't take on any significance at that particular time but would moments later when I got to the library and saw the building being evacuated. I actually had not felt the quake; so, I thought some sort of fire drill or actual fire was underway. Then I noticed many of the buildings in DC's Chinatown being evacuated and thousands of people just standing on the sidewalk waiting for the all-clear. They included employees of Catholic Charities which runs many of DC's homeless shelters and is located right across the road from the library ( a de-facto day shelter).

As it turns out, this is the third time that I was in a city as it experienced an earthquake and didn't feel it. I was in Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum in June of 2010. When I got up one morning, I heard people saying that there had been an earthquake during the night. I'd slept right through it and no one woke me or told me to evacuate the building. The same thing happened when I went to Chicago in May of 2011. Though I was asleep the first two times, I was awake and walking down the street this time and it STILL didn't phase me. There's one for the books.

Truth be told, I was actually annoyed by what followed the earthquake. I fully understand the need to take precautions; but, I don't relate to fear -- especially unfounded fear. The DC Government gave the order to shut down all government buildings including the homeless shelters and the libraries. We were unable to show the movie which we had put a lot of energy into organizing, though I'm certain that many other people's plans were interrupted too. We were allowed to retrieve the food and serve it outside of the library -- a building which, in spite of its age and deteriorating conditions, doesn't seem frail enough to be compromised by a 3-second long, 5.8 earthquake. The library was closed for the day. Shortly after feeding the homeless, I returned to the CCNV shelter where there were at least 400 people sitting and standing outside. When I left again at 5:30, they were still waiting to be allowed back in. I went to starbucks to do some work on my Toshiba Notebook (mini-laptop) and didn't return to the shelter until 11 PM, at which time I was able to go in. Starbucks doesn't seem to have missed a beat due to the earthquake. They're my kind of people.

As it turns out, people experienced the quake differently. Some thought it was a subway train passing by. Some thought it was a terrorist attack. Others, besides myself, said they didn't feel anything. Some were inside of buildings that shook, while others were outside. With much of DC being underground (subway system, below-grade parking and buildings with as many as 5 floors below ground), those who were below ground seem to have felt it more than those who were above ground. However, the National Cathedral, whose diocese I belong to, did sustain some damage.

Yesterday I saw a moderate amount of panic and an abundance of ill-preparedness. People were just standing on the sidewalks, not knowing what to expect and waiting for some form of instruction. We had an early rush hour as people took off from work. Intersections that don't usually experience traffic jams were experiencing them. The police had to direct traffic in areas where they usually don't. The cell phone towers were shut down such that people could text but they couldn't call -- a move which is intended to keep people from jamming the phone lines but doubles as a practice in martial law. This raised people's anxiety level slightly. The situation as a whole made myself and others think about how ill-prepared DC is for a large-scale terrorist attack. Then again, this is the same city which Obama mocked for how it shuts down over an inch of snow. I can't stand that about Washington, DC either. What will the city do when hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Americans inundate DC in September and October of 2011 and tens of thousands of them present at shelters this fall? This should be fun to watch.

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