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If an earthquake happens, and no one feels it...

July 19, 2010

Bummer. When someone else's grandchildren ask me on down the road where I was during the great East Coast earthquake of ought-ten, I'm going to have to tell them the truth: I slept through it.

When I saw the details on the morning news -- strongest quake to hit within 30 miles of D.C. since they began keeping records -- I tried to play catch-up, so I'd have something to report to the out-of-state relatives (who always seem to know more about Maryland happenings than I do, for some reason).

So I checked the artwork hanging on the wall of my office with a level. It was inconclusive. They were all straight, but it could have been that they started out crooked and got jolted back into place.

It was weird to watch the coverage unfold on the metro television stations, which seemed to sense they had a big story on their hands (Earthquake Strikes Silver Spring!!), but no dramatic footage to go along with it. You might have thought that an au pair might have tipped over in Bethesda or something, but apparently not.

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That's the TV equal of the old "If a tree falls in the forest" question. If news takes place but you can't take a picture of it, is it really news?

At first they reported the story by showing live shots of the region's interstate highways. What this had to do with an earthquake wasn't entirely clear, but then you can hardly take live video of a cockeyed wall hanging.

So they wound up taking live calls from viewers, which is always a train wreck. After the 15th person called in to dutifully report that she had "felt something," the anchors seemed to sense that television sets across the region were being switched over to SportsCenter.

"Yeah, it was 5 o'clock -- I know, because we always set our alarm for 5 o'clock. Used to get up at 6, but now we get up at 5 o'clock."

At this point the anchor needed to lead the witness:

"OK, so you heard the alarm, and then..."

"Right, and then I felt something."

"What did you feel."

"Well, I'd say it was something -- different."

"Like..."

"Well, like the house kind of, you know. Although I can't say it was the house really, it was more like, um, you know, we have stuff? Stuff in the house? Well, not the stuff, but I could feel the bed -- well -- I'd have to say it moved. Well, not move, but I definitely felt it."

It was at this point I realized that a great American tragedy exists, because our white bread populace has no standard earthquake clich on which to fall back upon in times of need.

We have them for tornados ("sounded just like a freight train a'comin'") and hurricanes ("I looked out the window and it was rainin' sideways"), but we are sorely lacking in earthquake boilerplate.

Maybe they have earthquake clichs out West, but here, those who experience an earthquake are forced to come up with their own original words, and clearly this is a mountain too tall.

Speaking of out West, I wonder what they think of our earthquake? After all the East Coast sermonizing on California's dance with destiny, it probably would serve us right if we were the ones to suffer a major earthquake that would send Delaware sliding into the sea.

But at least that would give the news stations something to point their cameras at.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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