Earthquakes: What To Do and What Not To Do

Earthquakes: What To Do and What Not To Do

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  1. Earthquakes are serious business here in Southern California. Not that they’re taken lightly elsewhere, but whenever you hear a news report about an earthquake in the United States, the next words you hear are most often, “in California,” in spite of all of the temblors that have struck unexpected places around the country in recent months. Of course, I still make fun of them (if you can’t laugh at the scariest things in life—like earthquakes, death, big sharks and fat people in Spandex—you’re doing life wrong), but I’ll digress for a while and save the humor for my next article.

    My first instinct when the ground starts quivering is to get the heck out of whatever building I’m in; however, experts agree that the safest place to be is inside a building, particularly a modern or retrofitted building. Here in California, all buildings must meet earthquake codes. So if you’re somewhere where the buildings are shoddily constructed, I would still recommend getting outside.

    There has been a lot of conflicting information as to what to do during an earthquake. The most recent advice from experts is not to seek shelter in a door frame, although the FEMA site on earthquakes still says you should do exactly this, which only goes to show how incompetent those running our country are. How you should respond to an earthquake understandably depends on where you are. For the most part, those with common sense will fare the tremor just fine. For the rest of you, here’s what to do:

    Indoors: Pretend an air raid siren is blowing and duck, cover and hold on (the last item is new and makes more sense in an earthquake than it would in an air raid). Those of us who lived through the Cold War know all about this; for you youngsters, this means get on your knees, preferably under a sturdy table, lace your fingers behind your neck, bend over and start praying to whatever deity comes to mind. In addition, you should hold-on to the object beneath which you are ducking. If that object bebops across the room, you follow along, keeping your cover overhead. Keep clear of tall furniture (such as entertainment centers) that can topple over and crush you, as well as windows (flying glass sucks), lamps (they tend to think they’re clubs in an earthquake), exterior walls (they like to fall and crush, too) and door frames (FEMA apparently hasn’t figured out that in a big quake, doors can swing madly and cause a lot of damage to anyone following FEMA’s recommendation and standing within a door frame). Most sites recommend that you stay in bed if you’re already there and cover your head with a pillow, but for me that grates against common sense, for most beds have ceilings over them, and they sometimes come down and do the crushing thing, too, so roll off the bed and hunker (remembering to cover the neck and head) beside it. If the bed moves, move with it. If none of these options is available, find a corner (where neither wall is an outside wall) and hunker there until the shaking stops.

    If inside any building other than your home, do not use the elevators. The chance of the elevator cab plunging you to a grisly death—as you see in the movies all the time—is about zero; Otis breaking systems are extremely reliable, despite the pessimism of Hollywood. However, you are likely to be trapped inside, and rescuers will be mighty busy once the quake ends. Again, stay well away from all windows and get yourself under some sturdy furniture. Sit on the floor to avoid falling.

    Outdoors: Remember what I said about exterior walls liking to crumble? This is true even if you’re outside, so get away from all buildings. If you’re in an area surrounded by tall buildings, get into the nearest one as quickly as you can, for in a big quake the biggest danger will be falling glass from high-rises. Barrier walls fall over better than walls in buildings do; avoid them as well. But if you’re stuck outside, get into a clear area, then look up. Do you see power lines overhead? If yes, you chose a very bad location; move away from the lines. When you find your safe area, sit or lay down. Many earthquake-related injuries result from people losing their balance and falling over. Get down before the quake puts you down.

    Driving: You’ll likely only feel a very large quake if you’re driving. If you do—or if you see that the world is coming down around you—use the same advice as for outdoors: find a clear area, away from buildings, walls, poles, power lines and the like, pull over and wait it out. If you can’t get clear of such tall things, get onto the floor of the car, under the dashboard, or on the floor in the back; that way, if something does crush your car, you may still walk away… once firemen cut you out of the car.

    Mountainous Area: Watch out for falling trees, especially if the ground is saturated. Many trees have shallow roots and once the ground is softened by rain, it doesn’t take much to topple them. If you’re on or below a slope, watch out for landslides. Don’t be surprised to see panicked wildlife, possibly including potentially dangerous animals such as bears and mountain lions. I wouldn’t be too worried about an animal attack that could wind up on True TV should you have a friend with you armed with a video camera; my guess is that the animals would have other things on their minds.

    Beach: If you’re by the ocean, make sure you aren’t there for long. Tsunamis are a real danger, so get to higher ground or at least into a tall building if there isn’t a convenient hill nearby, and don’t hang out in the lobby.

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