Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The world shakes

(Picture: the castle of Mytilini)

It is no news that the Greek economy is shaking. That the Greek earth is also shaking is also true. It goes with the series of earthquakes we recently had around the world: Haïti, Chile, then last Monday, the eastern part of Turkey, and a small shock around the Greek city of Patras (4.2 on the Richter scale) and the next day a shock of 4.3 around the northern Sporades.

Small shocks are no news in Greece. Since I have lived here I’ve felt a couple. But nothing like the quake that shook the world for two minutes in Chile – a bit different from waking up because you think somebody has been shaking your bed.

If you want to experience how a big earthquake might feel, you can go to the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri, where they have a special room that simulates earthquakes. This place is much visited by school parties where pupils are instructed what to do in the event of an earthquake.

Children are taught that they should hide under their school desks. Normally your first instinct might be to run outside, but all earthquake advice sites on the internet say you should do otherwise: when you are inside, stay inside! Hide under a solid table, stay away from doors, windows and outside walls. If you are in bed, stay there, and pull a pillow over your head to protect it. I wonder why you should not hide under your bed... but I am pleased to hear that my instincts were right: the first time I felt an earthquake I was asleep in bed, and woke up, turned around and thought “yeah, that’s it” and quickly went back to sleep. The only thing I did not do was pull a pillow over my head. Now having seen the horrible images of the earthquakes in Chile and Haïti, I think that next time I’d be better to stay awake, and hide under a pair of pillows instead of one.

Lesvos is also is an area where there is a real threat of earthquakes. The island lies in the area where the Hellenic curve touches the African plate, above the island is the Edremit–Skiros fault, off the southern coast is the beginning of the Lesvos–Psara fault and on the island itself there are many small faults. So the earth under our feet is not all that quiet.

The history of the island tells of many destructive earthquakes. Whole cities and villages have perished. Pyrrha is said to have disappeared into the Gulf of Kaloni. If it was not an enemy who destroyed the city, it was the earth itself which did the job.

The last ‘big’ earthquake was in 1984, but it did no significant damage. The last really destructive earthquake was in 1867. It not only caused enormous damage and thousands of deaths, it hit Turkish cities like Smyrna (now Izmir), Konstantinopel (Istanbul) and Gallipoli. It was the second time that Mytilini and Smyrna were destroyed by the same disaster. In 151 AD the two cities already were completely razed by a single earthquake.

According to an article in the Malta Times in the year 1867 in Smyrna the first shock of about 30 seconds was felt in the evening of the March 7th. It was followed by a much heavier shock, and again the next day another heavy shock struck. People fled into the fields and to the harbour in order to be safe on the sea. They probably did not know that a tsunami could follow an earthquake.

In the same article there was a letter from an eyewitness who saw the earthquake in Mytilini on Lesvos. He describes how the weather over the days before the quake had been uncomfortably warm due to a south wind and that on March 8th at six o’clock in the morning he was on his way to the office of the Austrian Lloyd’s, when he felt the first shock that lasted 12 to 19 seconds and which was followed by a much heavier second shock. When he looked to the harbour, it was like an underwater explosion had taken place, with foaming water coming up from below the surface.

“I saw all the surrounding buildings dancing like drunken men, and solid blocks of masonry, out of which the piers are constructed, tumbling like houses of cards. The office of the Austrian Lloyd’s and nearly all the buildings which belong to the Custom-house, the Lighthouse, and the large oil mill, all gave way. In all the streets houses fell, burying their inhabitants beneath the ruins. The ancient and beautiful castle, the cathedral, the governor’s palace, the prisons, the mosques, and I believe all the consular residences are damaged, and for the most part are no better than a mass of ruins ... The lowest lying part of town suffered most. The earth literally opened and engulfed a number of buildings along the street which led from the seashore to the interior of the town, and which on Wednesday afternoon was the most frequented part of Mytilene but is now invaded by the sea, and covered by heaps of mud. More than one-half of our beautiful town, the most delightful and the gayest in the whole Levant, is nothing more than a desert heaped with ruins”.

Yesterday the grey clouded sky turned into an orange light, which gave off an eerie atmosphere. I did not think anything of it and just hung out my white laundry as normal. Only later I realised what a mistake that was. It is not the first time that clouds of orange sand from the Sahara have invaded Greece in springtime. The sand comes down in tiny drops of rain, colouring roads, windows. Just about everything, including my white washed clothes, turned orange. Ships did not leave port, some flights were delayed, the long bridge between the Peloponessos and western Greece was closed for some time and I had to redo my wash. Off course this was not really a disaster, but still I uttered some bad words against these frequent unpredictable moods and deeds of Nature.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment