03/31/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

What Being in an Earthquake Feels Like

tim phillips photos via Getty Images

The March 28 5.1 earthquake centered in La Habra, California was the largest quake in Southern California in many years. Followed by hundreds of lesser aftershocks, it was also preceded by a foreshock of 3.1 magnitude. For each increment of 1, an earthquake feels 10 times stronger on the Richter scale. So, while a 4.0 feels like this:

Noticeable shaking of indoor objects and rattling noises. Felt by most people in the affected area. Slightly felt outside. Generally causes none to minimal damage. Moderate to significant damage very unlikely. Some objects may fall off shelves or be knocked over. - Wikipedia

A 5.1 feels like this:

Can cause damage of varying severity to poorly constructed buildings. At most, none to slight damage to all other buildings. Felt by everyone. Casualties range from none to a few. - Wikipedia

This is very basic information, but the point is that the difference between a mild and moderate earthquake is quite substantial.

Earthquakes come in many forms. There's the sudden, jolting kind that makes you think something has hit your house. There's the rocking kind that makes you feel like the ground is shaking. Then there's the kind like we had on Friday March 28 at 9:09 p.m., the rolling variety that sort of feels like when you're on a cruise ship and the water is choppy. And then it's shaking a little. And then it stops, and then the rolling starts again. And again.

There are all kinds of natural disasters that can devastate and destroy homes and lives. There are hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, torrential rainstorms, mudslides, avalanches and so on. The thing about earthquakes that's a bit more disturbing than most others is that there is no way of knowing when they'll happen.

Here's what happens when you're in an earthquake:

  • One minute, you're eating Cambodian food with five other people in a restaurant, the next minute you're all looking at each other and saying "earthquake!" Because that's the first thing anyone says. And even though you know you're supposed to dive under a table or stand in a doorway, you just sit there waiting for it to stop, because really, this can't be THE earthquake, can it? Stupid, stupid. But that's exactly what we did.
  • Then come the aftershocks - -smaller but in some ways more disturbing because you're already a little farmisht from the first one. Then you and your friends start to talk about how ill-prepared you all are for an emergency -- and how you're going to go to Costco the very next day to stock up on water and batteries, extra shoes, flashlights, canned food and more (don't forget a good amount of cash) so when the big one hits, you'll be ready. I'd be willing to bet 90% of the people who say they're going to do it never do.
  • If you're at home, you turn on the local news, which films every cracked chimney, broken water main, family in their pajamas (we didn't know what was happening!), store with merchandise fallen off the shelves, shattered window, flashing traffic light and on and on. After a while it becomes almost comical -- "Look! There's a house with broken china! Over there! A car alarm is going off! Stay tuned for more shattered glass and cracked plaster!"
  • If you have family in the area, you immediately call them to make sure they're OK. My daughter lives on the top floor of a four story apartment building, so I worry. She was fine.
  • There's always the same US Geological Survey seismologist, Lucy Jones, on the news, telling us what to expect next. I'm pretty sure she's been doing this as long as I've lived in California. She's like the calming voice during earthquake insanity. I love Lucy Jones.
  • Then you get ready for bed, and just to be on the safe side you keep a pair of sturdy shoes nearby. The question is, why don't you always??? Why do you grow complacent and lazy about emergency preparedness? Why do you think that, even though we know the BIG ONE is coming, it's not coming today?
Because who can live like that, right? Who can spend their days worrying that the next disaster is coming in a few minutes? Who can worry about their daughter's apartment building flattening like a house of cards? Who can worry that, more likely than not, your husband will be at his office and you'll be at the grocery store, or in your car, or at home, writing on your laptop, when suddenly you'll feel like you're on a Carnival cruise ship on rocky seas? Or like a truck has driven into your house? And you'll look at your swinging chandeliers, your pool water sloshing across the patio, and you'll think, "Damn, I should have stocked up on canned food when I had the chance." And then you'll hug your dog and wait for it to be over.

For a guide to putting together an emergency preparedness kit, click here.

Previously published on Empty House Full Mind