- -  Day # 209  + +

EU > Greece > Athens

Eek, an earthquake!

Athens, GR (View on map)

Earthquakes are more common in Greece than they are anywhere else in the European Union. During recent months, there have been several small earthquakes all over Greece, but most of those tend to cause only slight inconvenience. They last for a few seconds and disappear. Bigger earthquakes, like the 1999 one in Athens, can destruct buildings and kill hundreds of people in a matter of minutes. Never having experienced an earthquake in my life, I am asking some Greeks in the street of Athens what earthquakes are like and how scary they are.

Bella (29):

..had to move houses after the 1999 earthquake in Athens
Alexandra (27) is not particularly fond of earthquakes, but confirms that she sometimes only notices them afterwards: `Most of them come and go without any major consequences. You need to some time to find out what`s going on and sometimes it`s over before you realise it started. Anything over 10 seconds will be long enough to notice. For a short period of time, everything around you starts moving: buildings, lamp posts, the ground. The earthquake makes you feel dizzy. It if lasts long, it can be very scary, especially when you`re inside a building. Also, an odd noise may add to the effect. It may appear like thunder coming from underground, but it`s difficult to decide whether it`s not the buildings that are making the sound.`

A kind of a feeling
Maria (29) clearly remembers the 1999 earthquake, even though she was not in downtown Athens. `I had just boarded a plane at the old airport of the city. I remember it suddenly shocking forward, but I didn`t really pay attention. Half an hour later, the captain told us that Athens had been struck by a giant earthquake. I quickly called my mum and learnt that she had been very, very scared. She told me that bookcases in her office had fallen down, and that the walls were scratching.`

Maria tries to explain me what it feels like to be in an earthquake: `It`s a very surreal experience. It turns your blood cold and your body petrified for a few seconds, seemingly in a matter of milliseconds before the earthquake actually takes place. If it`s a short one and your senses missed it, you may even wonder why you had that strange feeling ? only to realise afterwards what happened. If an earthquake takes longer, you have time to actually find out what`s going on. In an office, you can feel desks moving. In the streets, you can see lamp posts swinging as if a very strong wind is playing around with them. People try to gather on the streets, praying that they and their loved ones will not get hurt.`

Bella (29, photo) was at her job when the big 1999 earthquake struck. `Literally everything was moving. I was working as a hair dresser and our shop was on the ground floor, so I could easily reach the street. I remember how difficult it was to get home afterwards though. The city was paralysed and I just wanted to join my mother and sister. After the earthquake, we had to move houses, as ours was not safe anymore. Fortunately, we were only renting the place.`

Oly (31) says that buildings in Athens are not specifically designed to resist earthquakes, even though they have been occurring since ancient times. `What does help, is that the hills in the city are made out of solid rock which make good foundations. Houses on those hills are usually safe. The lower residential areas are more dangerous and, obviously, monumental buildings are suffering from the violent movements.`

Alexandra (27) tells me that many people in Athens have their house insured against natural disasters: `I think a bank will even require such a coverage before they are even willing to offer you a mortgage.` Soteris (25) explains that families who are touched by earthquakes can also count on generous support from friends and families in other parts of the country: `It is more usual for people to pay money into other people`s accounts than to build up funds through charity. They prefer to transfer money directly to the place where its needed, so they can be sure it arrives without any big organisation using part of their contributions to fund its own managers and employees before getting anything done on the spot.`

Little can be done to prevent earthquakes from happening. Schools and offices do hold frequent emergency trainings. Firstly to instruct people what to do in case of an earthquake, secondly to make sure they don`t panic when one occurs. The best thing to do is to get out of the building, but it is not advisable to take the elevator or even a staircase to get to the ground floor. Elevators may get stuck and staircases are among the weakest constructions inside a building. Many people are therefore forced to stay in and wait until the ground stops trembling. Evi (29) tells that people used to be instructed to stand in open doorways, if they saw no way to safely evacuate the building. `The current trend is to tell people to hide under a table, desk or bed, which are supposedly safer than the old-fashioned open doorway alternative.`

Evi also has the 1999 earthquake printed in her memory: `I had just come back from school and my cousin had come over for lunch. We were about to cook the meat when the earthquake arrived. My cousin jumped under the table while I found the way to my bed. The whole thing seemed to last and last. When it was all over, we found out that we hadn`t turned off the fire under the frying pan, so all the potatoes had turned black.`

`The best thing you can do when you experience an earthquake is to stay calm and rational`, says Evi, adding that reality does not always approach the ideal: `When a big earthquake unexpectedly comes up, there`s usually a first moment where everybody is silent and holds their breath. After that, there`s screaming going on. People try to get out of their houses and gather on the streets. They stand talking there for an hour or two after the earthquake, checking if everybody is OK, making phone calls to friends and relatives.`

Earthquake forecast
Describing what the actual earthquake feels like does not seem to be an easy task. Neither is estimating how long the trembling lasted. Earthquakes seem to have such an impact that they interfere with people`s notion of time. What I do learn is that the length of an earthquake decides its consequences, much more that the actual strength of it or the underground depth of the its epicentre. Earthquakes can case a variety of movements which range from lateral (shaking from left to right) to chaotic (different dimensions). The normal pattern starts at the epicentre and from there moves outward in all directions like a wave. Big earthquakes are often followed by aftershocks, which may last for days and can be a real danger to rescue missions .

Unlike the volcanic activity of Etna, which I described a few weeks ago, earthquakes are unpredictable. It is commonly believed that animals feel the event coming a little earlier than humans do. Dogs are said to start barking before the arrival of the earthquake, but the few seconds notice period ? if recognised as such ? is insufficient to take any precaution measures.

Cynics say that whatever past earthquakes haven`t destroyed will be strong enough to withstand something of the same intensity. Many people are nevertheless holding their breath. If there is any cycle or pattern to be discovered in earthquakes in Greece, it`s the 10-year frequency. The last biggest one occurred in 1999 and another big one should not be far away. The increasing frequency and intensity of small earthquakes in the past few weeks are thought to be `appetizers` for a big one to come. But no-one knows when it will strike.

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