I was at the University of Washington on the last day of February, 2001. More precisely, in their undergraduate library, the Odegaard, doing some reading and web browsing on the computers there. When the earthquake started, I was standing by the library’s copy center, on my way out of the building. The floor simply began shaking: I don’t really remember any noises associated with the earthquake, or even any really strong up-and-down vibrations. As the ceiling tiles began moving back and forth, I just kept standing still as people around me dived under tables for cover. After going through the Loma Prieta earthquake, this one simply didn’t feel nearly as severe: just a light shaking, not a rumbling violence. I didn’t think this one would be enough to bring down the building or even toss the books from the shelves. I didn’t consciously calculate that this was the proper response, and it was probably quite dumb to underestimate any earthquake strong enough to be felt. For all I knew, the shaking could have suddenly escalated and knocked me off my feet, vulnerable to whatever damage would have ensued.
Of course, it didn’t, and when I met a friend at a local pizzeria for lunch an hour or so later, I mentioned the source of my nonchalance. He was a Northwest native, and hadn’t had anything like that casual response. The Nisqually was his first strong earthquake. Some level of earthquake awareness is the birthright and responsibility of all West Coast dwellers, but I suppose that the first significant quake you live through is always more surprising and more frightening than you would have expected, no matter how much you thought you knew about them. It’s a little like the tsunami evacuation route signs you see driving along the Pacific Coast: before the 2004 tsunami, they felt like speculative guesses at what coastal residents should do if a tsunami hits, but then we saw those images of the overwhelming power of a simple wall of water, and they communicated the vital urgency of knowing what to do when any sort of natural disaster happens.
In any case, later on that afternoon I went down to Pioneer Square, the old Seattle district defined by its masonry buildings and situated on loose, muddy soil. It was where the vast majority of earthquake damage in Seattle happened. I somehow don’t remember seeing much of that damage that day, maybe because the police had roped off the worst of it. (A week or so later, I did go back and see some of the collapsed brick walls and buckled pavement in the area.) I went over to Elliott Bay Books, the bookstore at the heart of the Square. The Pioneer Square Mardi Gras riots had happened early on the morning of the 28th, with at least one shooting and some buildings looted, and I remember telling one of the bookstore staffers that “it’s been an interesting 24 hours around here.”