Quake serves as real-life physics lesson

Years ago, in my high-school physics class, we learned the principle known as inertia.

Simply stated, inertia describes how an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and how an object in motion tends to keep moving. The more mass the object has, the harder it is to set it in motion, and once moving, the harder it is to bring to a halt.

On Feb. 28, I was reminded of that physics lesson as I felt the King County Courthouse sway back and forth under my feet.

I was also reminded of other physics problems, such as: If the six floors above decided to topple down, how much force would they carry when they struck me; or, how many feet to one side could that old building lurch before the stress caused it to implode like a house of cards?

Until two weeks ago, I had never been in an earthquake. To be honest, I'd be happy if I never experienced one again.

When it happened, I was on the sixth floor of the courthouse, using an uncooperative computer to search through court records. At 10:55 a.m., it struck. The floor on which I was standing began to violently shake up and down. At first, I thought a large truck was driving by, or maybe some misplaced bodybuilder had dropped his weight on the floor. However, the shaking continued, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see court documents falling from shelves, and some individual records that had been freed from their folders descended to the floor in a graceful back-and-forth motion.

I have been in buildings that move before. In St. Louis at the top of the Gateway Arch, I've leaned on the glass and watched the world below shift lazily underneath me. I've felt the wind whip the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and I was seasick 103 floors up in the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Those, however, pale in comparison to the Nisqually Earthquake.

Most of my childhood was spent in Kansas, where tornadoes are a common occurrence. Usually after one leaves a path of destruction in its wake, there is a tendency to personify it, to think of the tornado as evil or cruel. The same thing happens with hurricanes and other natural disasters.

But there was nothing evil or cruel about this earthquake. It didn't target one area. Its impact was felt far and wide, in cities large and small. As I felt the courthouse moan in distress, men and women dove under tables. Some of them cried out. Some prayed. At that moment, I understood that this was nothing personal, I was just in the earthquake's way.

I spent the rest of that day in a state of mild shock, unnerved by the initial jolt of the quake, and then by the relatively small amount of damage it left in its wake. It could have been worse. In January, a 7.7-magnitude quake killed more than 17,000 people in India. In August 1999, a 7.4 temblor killed 18,000 and injured 50,000 more in Turkey.

We were lucky. If the Nisqually Earthquake had been closer to the surface, its impact could have been much more severe. If buildings had shaken for a few more seconds - such as City Hall in Snoqualmie - they risked the possibility of falling down.

But we were also prepared. School students, such as those I talked to last week at the Eagle Rock Multi-age Program in Duvall, knew exactly what to do and seemed unfazed by what had happened. Because of strict building codes and retrofitting older structures, most damage was cosmetic and will be repaired in time.

That includes the courthouse. After being closed for two days, employees were allowed back in the building last Monday once it was declared safe to resume operations. And county council members are already trying to figure out just how fast the 87-year-old building can be retrofitted, which is expected to cost $76 million.

But you'll have to pardon me if I seem to hesitate the next time I walk into that building. For while I know what to do now when the next earthquake strikes - and it will, it's just a matter of time - I don't know if I'll ever get over the sensation of that 12-story courthouse wobbling to and fro beneath my feet. That was one lesson in physics that didn't need a real-life demonstration.

Barry Rochford is the editor of the Valley Record.

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