The Terror of Earthquakes

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The earthquake is as ancient a human experience as you can get. As a one-time L.A. resident, I can attest that the ground moving beneath your feet is terrifying. But as a modern human, you know that the quake will soon come to an end.

But there have been times in history where a region becomes beset by quakes. The shaking becomes chronic. Around the New Madrid fault in the southeastern United States, exactly this happened in 1811 and 1812. Seven strong quakes struck in just a few months, prompting recent settlers to wonder what had befallen them. The U.S. Geological Survey has preserved some of the diaries of these people. The entry below, penned by George Heinrich Crist, still strikes me as the best way to access the psychological toll that chronic quakes take.

I first read it years ago, and it still haunts me. The line, "You cannot fight it cause you do not know how," floated into my mind as I watched the tsunami roll right over all the infrastructure of an industrialized nation.

23 January 1812
"What are we gonna do? You cannot fight it cause you do not know how. It is not something that you can see. In a storm you can see the sky and it shows dark clouds and you know that you might get strong winds but this you can not see anything but a house that just lays in a pile on the ground - not scattered around and trees that just falls over with the roots still on it. The earth quake or what ever it is come again today. It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost our Amandy Jane in this one - a log fell on her. We will bury her upon the hill under a clump of trees where Besys Ma and Pa is buried. A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end.

Read the rest of Crist's diary at the U.S. Geological Survey website.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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