Amanda Ripley

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How to Survive an Earthquake

26th Aug 2011 posted in Disaster Behavior

I had a cart full of produce and was reaching for sunflower seeds when it happened: the rumbling at first sounded like a truck and then maybe an explosion. Then people were running for the supermarket doors and spilling into the streets. Bottles of olive oil toppled from the shelves, and the remaining shoppers stood in quiet disbelief. We were, after all, in Arlington, VA, two miles from the Pentagon, and a terrorist attack seemed more probable than a 5.8 earthquake.

But if it was an earthquake, then we had another problem: most of us had no clue what to do.

The earthquake that shook the East Coast on Tuesday left many people—officials included—baffled. What are you supposed to do in an earthquake anyway?? To the amusement of some (especially grizzled West Coast quake veterans), many of us did not exactly follow earthquake protocol.

Running into the streets of Midtown Manhattan while the shaking is still going on is not generally considered safe—although it is certainly understandable. Most New Yorkers think one thing when buildings shake—that there has been a terrorist attack, and they need to get out fast.

But now that the aftershocks have quieted and we await the arrival of a more-traditional hurricane, it’s a good opportunity to get smarter. New York City officials, to their credit, did not pretend to know everything. They set up a conference call to get advice from the California Emergency Management Agency on what to tell the public. The advice? Next time, stay inside. Drop under anything sturdy and brace yourself until the shaking stops. In other words, get away from anything that could fall you, from shelves to windows, but don’t try to run too far. In most earthquakes in the U.S., where most buildings are semi-sturdy, you are more likely to get hurt while running (and falling) during an earthquake than you are to get flattened by the building collapsing.

And once you get outside, you are not necessarily safer. If you can get out into the open, great! Go for it. But in dense cities, the danger from flying glass and other detritus can make the sidewalk more dangerous than the inside of a room.

Or, as FEMA puts it:

The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

Seems simple enough. But unless you have experienced earthquakes before, it is going to be very hard to remember and follow this advice in real life. The brain defaults to its most worn scripts when it is frightened. So if you want to improve your performance for the next quake, the only way to do it is to practice physically ducking, covering and holding on—at least twice a year. You need the muscle memory, because that’s all you’ll be able to rely on. You won’t have time to search FEMA on Google.

Which may be a blessing, since FEMA’s What to do in an earthquake advice, while generally useful, starts off with this classically absurd line: “Stay as safe as possible during an earthquake.”

Compare that pearl of wisdom to the first line of the earthquake page on the Israeli homeland security site:

Do not regard earthquakes as an invincible force – experience accumulated throughout the world proves that appropriate preparations and correct behavior during an earthquake can and will save lives!

The difference in tone speaks volumes about our different approaches to surviving disasters.

On Tuesday, when the rumbling had stopped, my fellow shoppers stood around dumbstruck for a few minutes, unsure of whether to continue shopping. Many of us automatically went to our phones to check on loved ones. There were a lot of uncomfortable chuckles and strangely bemused employees trying to clean up broken salsa jars. Just like in all kinds of disasters, even ones with far worse consequences, most people focused on normalizing the situation—aftershocks be damned.