Panic! at the Ezo

Another first: today marks the first time I’ve personally witnessed a mass panic.

I was lying in bed this afternoon, trying to take a nap, because the baby kept me awake until 3am last night and I had to teach a class at 9:30 this morning. Tea came in and told me to get dressed because we had to go outside. She sounded panicked so I immediately started changing into my jeans while asking for further details.

It turns out that our neighbor had come over and told us that someone had told her that Batumi was being evacuated because an earthquake was prognosticated between 3:00 and 4:00, and that we all had to leave the house. She was apparently so afraid that she had been crying. After hearing these details (not the crying part, but the bogus earthquake prediction part) I took my jeans back off and put my pajamas back on and went back to bed. I pointed out that scientists can’t actually predict earthquakes – I mean, not to within a one-hour window – which I learned from the extensive research I did Wikipedia article I read after the last two earthquakes we had here. But also, common sense suggests that if earthquakes could be predicted, they would be, and all of the earthquake disasters you always hear about would have played out much differently.

Now, the background to this story is that Georgians, including my wife and mother-in-law, are constantly warning me about things, and I am constantly ignoring their warnings, largely because we just have very different cultural ideas about what is and is not healthy or safe. For Georgians, I don’t dress warmly enough when I go outside, and I eat too much spicy food, and I sit in too many drafts, and I drink Nabeghlavi without letting the bubbles dissipate even though they keep telling me that the bubbles in Nabeghlavi will leech the calcium from my bones (I think that’s what it was) and that I have to wait for it to get flat before I drink it. In any case I’ve been living with my mother-in-law for six months now and she’s gotten used to me being totally blase about things that she finds alarming, and so when I walked into the kitchen in my pajamas to find her and her neighbor bundled up in coats and ready to evacuate, she just looked at me and laughed and said (in Georgian) “you aren’t afraid?” In retrospect I think my mother-in-law also wasn’t afraid, but was just sort of going along with the neighbors because that’s just what you do in Georgia.

But, of course, just going along with your neighbors means that when your neighbors panic for no reason, you do too. Tea caught the panic, and she immediately started dressing the baby to go outside. I double-checked on the internet that there were no “earthquake warnings” and then went back to bed. I was half asleep when Tea came back in and woke me up and demanded I come with her because she needed help with the baby. Irrational panic or not, I couldn’t say no to that, so I rolled out of bed and started putting my jeans back on. Urgh.

So here’s something I learned: apparently when people are panicking, irritated sarcasm is not the best way to calm them down. “Make sure to bring all your money”, Tea told me. “Why,” I asked, “Is the earthquake also going to rob our house while it’s here?” I know it’s lame to laugh at your own jokes, but that one still cracks me up. Probably because I’m so, so tired. I also suggested that we should take a picture of everyone who went outside so we would know who the village idiots were. I also pointed out that the supposed TV report supposedly showing people supposedly evacuating in Batumi because of the supposed earthquake could not be trusted, because Georgian TV news is all bullshit, all the time.

Anyway, strangely enough, none of these arguments prevailed, and so about fifteen minutes into the dreaded earthquake window, I dutifully carried the baby out of our apartment and towards the stairs. Tea wanted to take the elevator. I reminded her that if there was an earthquake the elevator would not be safe. Also, even if there isn’t an earthquake, the elevator probably isn’t safe, given that it randomly stops working every few days (a fact which the building’s residents blame on – no, seriously – the wind). We took the stairs but I got scolded the whole way down.

As we walked outside, I told Tea that if anyone asked what we were doing, we had to tell them we just happened to decide to take the baby for a walk and we didn’t know why everyone else was outside. I also pointed out that the cow and chicken in the yard weren’t panicking, and animals can sense earthquakes before people, but I think she thought I was joking. We passed a large group of people gathered in conversation, and she translated for me: a man was telling the people that no scientist on Earth has ever predicted an earthquake and they were all panicking for no reason. Preach on, brother.

We made it to the local field, and it was cold and windy and I made a video documenting the final minutes of pre-earthquake Kutaisi, before all of the buildings collapsed. Irritated sarcasm finally won out over panic, and Tea found herself laughing at my over-the-top description of events. I went back home with 15 minutes left on the danger clock; Tea and her mom waited it out until 4:00 with their neighbors in their neighbors’ car.

When I woke up from my nap, Tea told me that people on facebook were all making fun of Kutaisians, and that apparently police actually were telling people in Batumi to leave their houses, but nobody could figure out why. It’s in a couple of news stories.

I’m not going to give Georgians a hard time about this one. Earthquakes are scary, and mass panics can happen anywhere – it’s just human nature. I’ve seen Americans jump on bandwagons of misinformation too many times to blame “collective society” or whatnot for this. Many Georgians wasted an hour or more of their day today sitting in cars because of bogus earthquake rumors, but how many Americans have wasted an hour or more of their day reading about their new astrological sign after that bogus Zodiac rumor two years ago, or writing essays and blog posts about abortion rights after that bogus redefining pregnancy rumor last year? It strikes me that the same sort of social effects that lead to mass panics are at work in viral internet stories.

In conclusion, the internet is like one big village… and so is Kutaisi.

*****

Also, it’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality:

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