photo: Bethany L King/CC BY-ND
"Hey! Stop kicking my fuckin' bench! Stop kickin' my bench!" That's how I first noticed yesterday's 5.8 earthquake in Virginia, sitting in Tompkins Square Park eating my lunch, with an obviously disturbed homeless man trying to sleep a few benches down.
My bench was shaking too, feeling like someone was excessively into their music and taping out the beat. But with no one obviously rocking out nearby I immediately wondered if it was an earthquake. Apparently I was a minute faster than the internet, as my iPhone search yielded no recent results for 'earthquake NYC 2011'.
So I brushed off the few seconds of shaking as being some big truck going by unseen, or something else innocuous and commonplace. I gave it no second thought......Until I got home and saw this "devastation" on the floor (something which numerous other people did as well):
I guessed New York just got a perhaps a 4.0 quake, but 5.8 in Virginia must feel like that several hundred miles away. In any case, it felt less strong to me than being woken in a Mumbai hotel by the 7.7 Gujarat earthquake in 2001.
Pretty quickly we learned that, apart from some damage to the National Cathedral, one of the buildings at The Smithsonian, the Washington Monument and some questions about others, there really wasn't any significant damage. Nor were there significant injuries. Transit was disrupted so that the fact that it appeared that there was no damage could be confirmed.
The tweeting and texting to ensure loved ones were safe and to gather basic info (if only to reassure oneself that you're weren't shaky from not yet eating lunch) was understandable--and provides plenty of fodder for touting the benefits of the internet when phone service drops briefly.
Finding out that two nuclear reactors were shut down, pretty much exactly as planned, was encouraging. Even though I'm no fan of nuclear, knowing the system worked was a good thing.
Nevertheless the media, both social and not, went crazy. The EARTHQUAKE!!!! (Huffington Post) AMERICA ROCKS! (Gizmodo) treatment was entirely overboard. The latter may have been a bit tongue in cheek, but the former, screengrabbed above, I'm entirely sure was serious.
This video of the seismic waves below is beyond a doubt cool on the face of it (I was going to share it with you all before Jaymi beat me to it), but if it was caption "Twitter waves move across the nation after rare Virginia quake" you'd probably believe me for a second. After all Twitter hit 5,500 tweets per second at the height of it all.
Jumping on the bandwagon of highlighting nuclear power plants in the US in earthquake zones--as plenty of people did (including this site) based on a brief survey of Facebook--seemed painfully stretching the situation. Not to mention feeding into fears rather than addressing them constructively.
Was that an aftershock I felt or the collective voice of the environmental community saying to one another, "Never let a good crisis go to waste"?
It's understandable that everyone was abuzz wondering what was happening, but you know what: Yesterday's Virginia earthquake was of approximately 1,000 times lower intensity than the one which struck Japan earlier this year, or the one which happened off Chile in 2010. It was 100 times less intense than the one which killed 68,000 people in Sichuan, China in 2008. It was roughly 10 times less intense than the one which ruined Haiti last year (a testament to better building codes here that more damage didn't occur I suppose).
All told yesterday's events were news written in a grey 8 point type, not brightly colored, all caps 72 point with exclamation points.
The reaction to that news showcased both the best and the worst of modern media: The best in enabling rapid communication of information and the worst in amplifying a situation all out of proportion to its actual impact or importance.