We are organising the travel arrangements for a family wedding in October. My sister’s son, my nephew Clay, is marrying Kristen and the wedding is in Maryland. Cousin Jamie is flying in from California, I’m flying from London, and we’re trying to coordinate flights so that the mother of the bridegroom only has one journey to the airport.

How did holidays, family reunions and weddings happen before email? In the olden days, there were letters, and I even remember the telephone age because my phone bills were higher than my monthly rent. I regret that emails have dealt a mortal blow to long, thoughtful letters, collections of which fill my bookshelves, but these instant communications have transformed the tricky business of travel, and now I can’t imagine life without email. The two have at least one quality in common. Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald that letter-writing has ‘a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something’. Tackling one’s inbox provides that same illusion of achievement.

We were cheerfully batting out itineraries to each other when I suddenly received an email from my sister: ‘Earthquake. Desk shaking. Outta here.’ My sister is volatile. If I can indulge in a literary reference, she is Scarlett to my Melanie. She even has the same arched eyebrows of Vivian Leigh. Her temper is legendary, but, wolverine that she is, she doesn’t exaggerate. If she writes ‘earthquake’, you don’t think ‘yeah, yeah, a pair of F18s flying over too low’.

Within minutes, CNN’s online news interrupted the liberation of Libya to announce that an earthquake in the Washington area registered at 5.9 on the Richter scale. The epicentre, the spot where an unmapped seismic fault ruptured, was near the small town of Mineral, Virginia, 87 miles from Washington. Although the seismic waves were felt as far away as Montreal, the citizens of Mineral said it felt like hanging on to a bucking horse.

And then there was a lull. Lots of things were happening-Dominique Strauss-Kahn walking free, stockmarket zig-zagging but all I could get was news from Libya. I had to wait until early evening when an official email arrived from the National Cathedral saying that capstones finials-had fallen from three spires and cracks had appeared in flying buttresses on the east side. Then, another email from my cousin Marguerite, wife of the dean, went further: the cathedral may have suffered more damage than is apparent. Its structure is not reinforced and a quake specialist from Cornell warned that a couple of more tenths of magnitude could have caused its walls to collapse.

As a cyber aftershock, the loony online commentariat instantly turned the earthquake into a partisan issue and blamed the president: ‘A 5.9 quake in Washington DC this afternoon. The Obama family was biking.’ What do these people eat for breakfast? Most touching was an alert from the Washington Post revealing that the first warning occurred at the National Zoo, where officials said the red-ruffed lemurs began ‘alarm calling’ a full 15 minutes before the quake hit. In the Great Ape House, an orangutan named Iris hollered like an emergency siren for 10 seconds before keepers felt the quake.

As I waited for my sister to get in touch, I decided to check out the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s primer ‘What to do During an Earthquake’. Running outside is not advised if you’re near a lot of high-rise buildings. Better to ‘DROP to the ground, take COVER under a sturdy table, and HOLD ON until the shaking stops’. In other words, stay put. Actually, I think ‘stay put’ are the most beautiful words in the English language, but attendance at weddings is compulsory. At midnight, the emails resumed. ‘Try to get here three days before,’ my sister writes. ‘Just vetoed I Feel the Earth Move for the entrance of the bride.’

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