My first Earthquake

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Washington was struck today by an earthquake. It was not strong and there was almost no damage. Yet, it was in the capital of the USA, a somewhat unexpected and particular place. And it was my first. Now that I see nothing serious happened, I can say it was fun.

I was writing an email and I felt like constructions going on one or 2 floors above. We are on floor 11 of 12. Like a second later I left like if someone had drop a very heavy something above us.  I felt I bit dizzy. Then I realized something wasn´t normal. I looked over the window in the far corner and I saw the reflections of light on the windows of the building opposite to us. They were also shaking! It was an earthquake! 

I must admit I felt excited. I stood still watching the and feeling the movement to confirm. For my PhD I learnt a lot of Geophysics and I loved it. I tried to sense if the movement was horizontal or vertical . If the shakes were increasing, if the building was resonating, what was the direction of movement. For what I remember body waves are first P (pressure) waves, then S (shear) waves. Then surface waves can arrive, and these are the worst since they tend to have long duration and high amplitude. A bomb as the cause crossed my mind but it didn´t make sense to have a sustained shake then.

I think I felt a big up-down and then mostly sideways N-S but our building is also aligned E-W so N-S is the weakest direction. After something like 3 seconds after it started I jumped the chair and I said: Hey guys, it´s an earthquake! I walked to them and told them to take shelter inside far from the windows. But they knew so we stayed holding it for like 5 more seconds and feeling it. At this time it was more sustained. It think it was more structural damping of the building coming into rest after the big shakes, but I am just making a guess.

We decided to evacuate, still shaking slightly. I took my phone to check Twitter (lights where on the whole time, and Wifi was working). I tweeted. While we where going down I realized it wasn´t probably a good idea to go outside Pennsylvania Avenue. It´s all high buildings with glass and if they brake will fall onto us. Also we are located right next to the World Bank and the White House, so you can expect tons of people and emergencies vehicles if really serious. I said that to the people walking down and I hold them at the exit door while I peeked if there was debris on the floor. Everything was fine so we went out and I went to check the White House.

I was out of our Wifi and I checked we did had 3G data at the time. It was slow but working. 5 minutes later a friend that I found tried to text me. No luck. Calling. No luck. He did not have data. I did, and I updated my twitter timeline and I knew about  details of the earthquake. My first “lifeline” was Twitter. I also sent an email to our boss telling him we were fine and no damage was visible. Interesting that data connection worked but voice did not for me. Think that DC has probably among the highest density of Blackberries, iPhones, Androids, …

I had to go back to the office for a meeting (aftershocks were likely but I was also safest inside). I kept checking the Twitter feed and saw the timeline flood with updates: buildings evacuated, jokes, data, initiatives, maps, … Twitter reports amongst the highest rates of Tweets per second. Within an hour free maps started to appear. Official responses, replies, confirmations.

Only about 1 hour later I got an email from my old job with what I should do to respond “the emergency”. Think about it. New York got an alert about the earthquake before it hit them. Sometime later, the USGS sent the info, and only hours later we got official confirmation.

Not all is bad news. I keep thinking about the automated systems in Japan, about how technology can lead to an amazing responsive an adaptive system. We just need to leverage it. We have the idea, we have the hardware, we have the infrastructure.  It´s “just” software. Let´s do it. Many tweets where not relevant, there was no way of filtering them. This was not Haiti or Kenya. One of the most advanced inter-connected educated population was exposed to an natural incident. It wasn´t a disaster, far from that, but I´m sure there´s a lot of information for those studying the future of crowdsourcing, disaster management and data mining.

Also for geologists. It wasn´t very deep, but being like 1000 times worse than the last record and with all the seismic stations they have, they´ll have enough data to make inversion models and figure out how´s the soil beneath us with unprecedented detail.

Urban planners can take a lot of data from today as well. Many people went home so immediately the city was a gridlock of traffic. Bikeshare saturated soon. Metro was running slow to check for damage in tubes. Airports closed for some time.

What about the volume of phone calls? The data volume generated inside the region? So many things to work with. So many ideas. For now, my mind is booked with this.

What an interesting day.

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