I Don't Think Earthquake Humor Is Funny

Natural disasters are not jokes.
Publish date:
August 29, 2014
seriously just stop talking now, earthquakes, earthquake

In the small hours of Sunday morning, I was shaken awake -- I'd guess it was around 3:20 a.m., because seconds later, I rolled over in bed to turn my phone on and Tweet:

While the USGS does maintain a "latest earthquakes" map, it takes a minute or two to update (and isn't instantly reliable -- in fact, as of writing this, which was over a day after the quake, they still hadn't pinpointed the epicenter). If you want to know if something was in fact an earthquake, you ask Twitter. If you want to find out roughly where it was and how extensive it might be, you ask Twitter -- because a sort of ripple effect happens as Tweets spread and are distributed.

I've watched it happen before with other seismic events, and it actually creates a fantastic network and communications system. I could instantly check in with friends without clogging the phone lines, and get an idea of the extent of the damage. In Oakland, the back and forth shaking woke me and my roommate up, but not a single object in the house moved, including the large painting I have resting against the wall on top of my desk. (It's unsecured because I'm taking it up north later this week and I'd grown complacent about making sure art is firmly seated on the wall/against the floor because we haven't had a significant quake in a while.)

In El Cerrito, north of us, friends didn't report feeling anything. Meanwhile, Tweets were coming in from Napa, showing totally trashed kitchens and signs of exterior damage. It became quickly apparent that the North Bay had borne the brunt of the shaking. Power was out across parts of Napa, personnel were responding to fires, and at least one child was left in critical condition after a chimney collapse.

It was the strongest earthquake in Northern California in 25 years.

While I wanted to stay up to follow events and check in with all my friends, I was exhausted and needed to go to bed after being out late the night before and because I needed to meet a friend for breakfast early Sunday morning. So I went to bed, and when I woke up, it was to a flood of earthquake "humor" from people outside the affected region.

People joked about "shaking coffee" and mocked the images circulating on the Internet showing thousands of dollars of wine spilling out across the floors of Napa wineries, stores, and private collections. The earthquake became a thing of mockery and Internet-wide amusement even as I was reading reports about serious damages and injuries while trying to contact friends in Napa who were still unreachable.

I got a little pissed off. Because this kind of thing pisses me off. I get really irked when an event like this happens -- and it seems to happen with earthquakes in particular -- and people make it into one big joke. Natural disasters are not jokes. While Californians in the affected area made macabre in-jokes to deal with their emotions and, to some extent, to push their legitimate fears aside, that didn't make it okay for outsiders to try to ride that wave.

And many of the jokes made demonstrated a fundamental lack of awareness when it comes to just how scary it can be to live on a fault -- and the Bay Area has more than one fault, a tangled web of faults snarling over and around each other in a constant state of tension. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I, like many California residents, had a moment of panic -- is this it? Is this the moment? Should I try to shelter in place or is it too late or is this a mild quake?

I've had similar moments in the shower, while sitting on my porch, and in many other locales when the stable, solid, reliable earth beneath my feet suddenly ruptures. This isn't to say that all Californians everywhere panic every time the earth moves, but in a strong quake, these thoughts go through your head. When the shaking is over, you worry about aftershocks. And encountering people cracking jokes about your coffee spilling in its saucer (I drink tea, thank you very much) feels extremely insensitive and frustrating -- hahaha, very funny, but look, jerk, you weren't there.

The jokes about the spilled wine irked me too -- and I'm a die-hard class warrior who loves mocking the rich. For starters, most of the striking and visually arresting photos of damaged wine collections came from wineries and storage facilities, not private collections. They represented a huge loss of stock and income, which in addition to hurting wealthy wineries also hurts their workers -- from the field crews I've already started to see out among the grapes preparing for the harvest to the personnel working in the winery itself to those who manage stocks, handle sales, and control every aspect of wine's meandering journey from vine to market.

Those images to me didn't represent something to joke about, but rather, a potentially significant blow to Napa's economy. While I think there are numerous problems with the marketing and positioning of the wine country, and I strongly dislike the class stratification that exists there in part because of the wine industry, I also recognize that destroying the industry wholesale hurts workers first and hardest. There was nothing funny to me about the loss of valuable vintages ... or the thought of who would be cleaning them up in the morning.

So please don't laugh at another region's natural disaster. It's insensitive when a state is suffering -- or when a state experiences a near miss, a situation that could potentially have been much, much worse than it was.