The Earthquake in Utah Was a Reminder That Our Culture Was Built by Catastrophe

The Earthquake in Utah Was a Reminder That Our Culture Was Built by Catastrophe

The Earthquake in Utah Was a Reminder That Our Culture Was Built by Catastrophe

Scenes from a pandemic: 2


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Salt Lake City—When the earth starts shaking, you’re not supposed to run to a doorframe. The doorframe is no safer than anywhere else, and rushing there is dangerous.

It doesn’t matter. When the largest earthquake in Salt Lake City’s recorded history hits—as it happens, early on Wednesday morning, March 18—and at every heavy aftershock, we still run to the doorframe. Education doesn’t help; the allure of the wood of the doorframe is inescapable. Gripping it is a plan. A goal. Something to do amid the uncontrollable.

From the doorframe I learn that the first stage of an earthquake is chaos-shaking; the second stage is rocking, forward and back, as if the earth finally finds its rhythm. I learn the noise of it, a low raspy hum right at the lowest frequency my ear can detect.

Our city sprawls at the foot of the Wasatch Range. These are absurdly beautiful mountains, ready-made for brochures. Only now do we remember the Wasatch Range was built by catastrophe, bit by bit.

The day of the quake, our city is at the foot of another slope, the exponential rise of Covid-19 cases. We refresh websites all day. One tab shows the latest aftershocks, so we can determine whether the earth moved underneath us or we just imagined the tremor. Another tab shows the latest case count for the virus in Utah.

The numbers don’t help us. They are doorframes, a useless handhold amid the uncontrollable.

I live in a small community house. There are just four of us, all climate justice and immigration rights organizers. All introverts. Here we call this the Crone Virus, and embrace the life we hope to have when we are old. We tend to our hens and our sprouting garlic. We make big batches of soup and herbal tea. We feel a secret relief that we are ethically obligated to stay home.

But we’re still stumbling over this new moral calculus, trying to sustain a network of families facing deportation and detention, using phone calls and texts and awkward porch drop-offs. I cherish my time with two kids during a food delivery as they describe their favorite TikTok videos and tease each other about their crushes. They are so lively and normal. But we all grow silent when their mom asks what will happen to her husband in immigration detention.

Throughout the day I remember; I forget; I remember. The cold chill of it. The people we know in detention, the people we don’t know. Even in non-pandemic times, diseases hit detention centers hard. Last year mumps and chickenpox roared through Colorado’s Aurora Detention Center. During expensive phone calls to their families living here, detainees described the nightmare: whole wings locked down in quarantine, the aches and fevers, and fainting. They said it felt like they had been left to die.

When my ancestors first settled this place, they brought all their dreams and all their diseases. Both their dreams and diseases eradicated whole peoples. The part of Utah Mormon culture that feels so safe and stable to me was, like the mountains, built by catastrophes.

Today, a woman from the suburbs left boxes of fancy food-storage meals on our porch for us to redistribute to immigrant families. The food comes from her Mormon neighbor, part of his two-year End Times supply that he wants to share with those who need it more.

It confuses me, all the small kindnesses of this place, and all the big cruelties. All the catastrophes past, present, and future.

Salt Lake City is built around a Mormon temple, with all the street numbers counted out from this ground zero. At the top spire stands a 12-foot-tall Angel Moroni, hammered out of copper and covered in 22-karat gold leaf. He faces east and holds a trumpet to his mouth. When I was a kid, my mom told me the statue would blow the trumpet to announce the End Times.

In the earthquake, Moroni’s trumpet clattered out of his grip and fell to the ground, and now we have to wait here within time, unsure what’s beginning and what’s ending.

Something Is Happening Here is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, offering scenes from a pandemic—a series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends. Edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, it will appear weekly on and

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