Aftershock: the verbal history of a very small earthquake

Image: Marriott

I’m on level 27 of my building in Docklands with my sixth edition lockdown bubble buddy.

For modesties sake I’ll use ye olde worlde cliche and say we’re in flagrante delicto when the building starts to shake.

It’s almost an hour later while I’m deep-diving social media when I realise my first thought was virtually everyones: is it an earthquake?

Melbourne hasn’t had a major quake in 55 years so at 36 I’m part of three Australian generations who have almost no cause for comparison to this experience.

My second thought: they’re going to find our bodies buried together like in Pompeii.

Then something more primal kicks in: “we need to stand in a doorway!” I say to my friend Ren, and race to do just that. Our 42 story building is swaying like a tree now and my adrenalin rush is real. I am genuinely frightened.

But Ren is from Osaka and he gets up from the couch and watches me with languid irony: “oh please, this is nothing!”

It doesn’t last long and even as I exit the doorway and watch Ren check the fusebox I’m thinking: what if that was just the first one? And what if the next one is worse?

“We should get outside”. Ren rolls his eyes at me.

“We only need to leave if…” the buildings fire alarm goes off and he sighs “…Ok, now we need to leave.”

We later find out someone in the buildings foyer panicked and press a fire alarm. One of the lifts has engaged its emergency breaks and shutdown, but this is a modern skyscraper designed to withstand earthquakes. It’s survived the whole thing with nary a scratch.

As everyone begins to congregate in neatly socially distanced groups in the park outside, I think of my last apartment in Footscray with the giant cracks in its walls and wonder if it was damaged.

It’s all hauntingly in the moment and I look around at forty-two stories worth of strangers with the added perspective of a shared experience. We’re almost sheepish. Everyone knows everyone just freaked out a bit. Couples are holding each other to stay warm. They’ve left in too much of a hurry to get jackets and its raining very lightly.

Everyone has remembered their phone. #BlackMirror

Image: CSEM-EMSC

Ren has experienced four earthquakes including Tohoku in 2011, so he’s a veritable Bailey Smith. He calls his father across town to make sure he’s ok and starts texting his office.

I’m one of those queer people you read about irretreivably estranged from a biological family. I call my friend network and send out a text to everyone I can think of in Melbourne and Victoria. “Are you safe”?

I then open social media and like a good millenial journalist I add to the noise. My work colleagues all check in and they’re fine, if likewise bashfully shaken. My bosses young kids were scared by it all and my heart goes out to them. I’m in my fourth decade and my mind is blown. Apparently this was a 5.9 magnitude quake and that shocks me as well. It was such an abrupt thing. In my head it was only a three surely.

Firetrucks arrive and the sirens in the distance make me want to make sure other buildings are still standing so I drag Ren over to the boardwalk just to reassure myself Bolte bridge and Marvel stadium are still standing. They are.

The memes are flowing thick and fast online now: #wewillrebuild. Footage arrives of Jacinda Ardern smiling ironically through an interview as Wellington experiences an earthquake last year. She’s the same mood as Ren right now: “Earthquake? Whatevah!”

The boardwalk has filled up and people are talking calmly. Given Melbourne has had the sleazy stench of anti-lockdown protest drama wafting through it for the last four days, there’s a decidedly chummy and relieved vibe to it all. Minutes after the #earthquake Twitter is doing what Twitter does best and hits the low road.

“This is natures wrath for the anti-lockdown protests!” scream out otherwise totally respectable minds with absolutely normal senses of humour.

People are smiling and talking to their neighbours and patting each others dogs but the whites of their eyes are showing a little more than usual. This wasn’t a near-death experience by far. But an extra step or two up the richter scale and it really could have been.

“I think a few people’s bullshit metres just got a reset,” I say to Ren.

We decide to do what we shortly find out a lot of self-respecting Melbournians decided is top priority after an act of God: get a coffee. Our local cafe is a madhouse! It’s socially distanced queue stretches up the lane as baristas, months removed from their last pre-lockdown rush hour, stretch old muscles. Ten minutes after an earthquake and they’re in the thick of it. My former hospitality self salutes their endurance.

Metropolis had its factories. Melbourne has its espresso machines.

A nearby Dan Murphy’s has its doors shut. There’s glass and a lake of booze in every aisle. Images are online now of buildings damaged on Chapel Street and Dan Andrews and Scott Morrison are charging up the news cycle. It’ll take more than a 5.9 magnitude earthquake to shake Australian politics into credulity.

A memory stirs of the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. It’s literally the only reference point I have for this type of natural disaster. I’ve experienced one cyclone, a couple of dust storms, a few seasons of dire bushfires and some floods. I need some bar to measure my first earthquake experience against.

Newcastle’s 1989 quake happened when I was four. But I remember it had multiple fatalities, caused widespread damage and seriously impacted the insurance sector at the time. It must have been a 7.0 or higher surely.

I’m more than a little shaken to see Newcastle was a 5.5 magnitude quake and happened deeper underground at 13 kilometres but only 5km outside the city centre.

As Ren and I walk back to our skyscraper, I look at the others around us and at the Melbourne skyline a couple of kilometres distant. Very little that I can see is more than ten or twenty years old. Apparently our construction codes have served us well today. I offer a silent “prayer” of thanks for earthquake resistant architecture.

“You know there’s probably going to be an aftershock today or tomorrow,” says Ren. He’s using the same voice my parents did in 1998 when they told me Geri was leaving the Spice Girls.

I smile. “I’ll be ok.”

We hold hands and join the queue to use the elevators. It took five minutes to evacuate the building but 30 to get everyone back in.

We’re a weird species.