- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2011



We’re all orangutans now. Iris the orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington — which The Washington Post’s man on the scene, citing her “straight, elegant red-orange hair,” calls the prettiest orangutan at the zoo — showed the nation’s capital just how to behave in a minor-league earthquake.

Seconds before humans felt anything, Iris gave the loud guttural cry the zookeepers call a “belch vocal” and ran frantically for cover. And not just Iris. The zoo was alive with panic immediately before the temblor was felt under human foot — gorillas, flamingos, field mice, beavers, vipers, cottonmouth moccasins, Komodo dragons and everything else breathed, burped, slithered and stalked. So, too, did nearly everyone else on Capitol Hill, in the White House and among the various offices where making trouble for ordinary taxpayers is the work of the day.

Terror and earthquake struck the supper dish and you might have thought it was the most horrific quake to rattle the tectonic plates since San Francisco was leveled in 1906. Dishes tinkled in china cabinets, a picture fell from the wall in a house beside a country lane in Northern Virginia, the earth moved in Bethesda (thrilling a new bride) and somewhere in Georgetown, a garbage bin tipped over, spilling out three tin cans, a handful of coffee grounds and a dented pizza box. This was serious stuff, as serious stuff is measured by the minions of press and tube.

Streets were jammed as government buildings emptied, sending guvvies racing to pick their way through sidewalks littered with millions of fresh corpses. Soon the government decreed work dismissed for the day and everyone hurried home to avoid the killer tsunami everyone expected to race up Rock Creek to drench the rush hour. Dread and dismay descended swiftly over a mortally wounded city.

Or maybe it just seemed that way. It’s difficult to measure disasters that strike us now. We’ve become the Infantile Society, eager only to be coddled, burped and entertained, with noise masquerading as music, and nicks and bruises as deep cuts and real wounds. Fright and alarm lie all around. President Obama, who finally had a credible excuse for missing a putt when the temblor shook the green on the ninth hole at a golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, must now include in his new stimulus an appropriation for thousands of new therapists and counselors. The land (or at least the District of Columbia) is still in shock, and who knows how many fragile psyches were left unattended on the Potomac. “There’s more going on in the Earth than we understand,” a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey tells a reporter. Indeed.

We can only trust and pray that Washington is unique in the face of fright. The auguries are not always reassuring. With a Category 3 (or more, or less) hurricane approaching in the wake of the quake, the capital could expect the usual run on milk, bread and, naturally, toilet paper. The supermarkets were crowded by late Thursday, and by nightfall Friday there wouldn’t be a loose roll of toilet paper anywhere east of the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi, in fact, is the site of the king of the American earthquakes. The first temblors along what would be called the New Madrid fault in southern Missouri struck in December 1811 and continued through January 1812. One quake so shocked the earth that the Mississippi ran backward, created the vast Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee, stirred residents awake in Pittsburgh and Norfolk, Va., rang church bells in Boston and cracked open sidewalks in Washington. Worst of all, quilted toilet paper had not yet been invented.

Mocking the fright of others, even presiding guvvies, is not nice, and William Clark, the governor of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, in his request to the government in Washington for federal relief noted that in “the Catalogue of miseries and afflictions, with which it has pleased the Supreme Being of the Universe to visit the inhabitants of the earth, there are none more truly awful and destructive than Earthquakes … provisions ought to be made by law for, or cashiered to, the said inhabitants’ relief, either out of the public fund or in some other way as … can meet the cost demand availability of the General Government.”

Clark, famous for his expedition with Meriwether Lewis to investigate the Louisiana real estate Jefferson purchased from France, thus made one of the first requests for federal disaster aid. That was a real earthquake, with real aftershocks.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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