The Planet

Don’t Stand In The Doorway And Other Earthquake Myths

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

July 5, 2016
Image of the San Andreas fault via Flicker user Doc Searls (cc)

April is California Earthquake Preparedness month, and there’s nothing like a scary prediction that the next “big one” to make residents of the state quake in their boots. So when Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, told a roomful of seismologists and reporters that the infamous San Andreas fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll” at the National Earthquake Conference last May, ripples of anxiety quickly spread from California to the rest of the world.

The first thing you can do to be prepared for an earthquake is to believe it will happen.

San Andreas, California’s most famous fault line, cuts the state in half as it travels from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border. (You may remember the blockbuster disaster movie it spawned—the one based on questionable science). Scientists know that the fault’s precarious existence has been around for awhile. Maiclaire Bolton, a seismologist at Core Logic, an earthquake risk solutions company, was in the room when Jordan gave his headline-making sound byte. He’s right, she says, but “the risk has been very high for a considerable amount of time.”

That’s largely because even the biggest earthquakes of the past 40 years have done little to relieve pressure between tectonic plates, says Bolton. Though the magnitude 6.9 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake led to over $6 billion in damage, collapsing a portion of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and the 6.7 1994 Northridge earthquake generated $20 billion in damage to the San Fernando Valley, both were “little” quakes, geologically speaking.

“I’m a seismologist and it terrifies me that it’s been [so] long since we’ve had a major earthquake,” says Bolton. “Lots of little earthquakes do not relieve the stress [on the plates].” It’s likely to require a temblor on the scale of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (7.8) for the earth to get a gasp of serious relief. Seismologists now believe that magnitude 7s and even 8s are more probable.”

And though the San Andreas has been on the brink of a major quake for quite some time, a recent report that appeared last month in the journal Nature Geoscience distilled the threat in a terrifyingly concrete way: Several southern California basins, from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles area, are sinking 2 to 3 millimeters every year (while San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties are rising at similar rates). Basically, the fault line is actively on the move.

Up and down: Red areas are rising while blue areas are sinking. Visualization via Nature Geoscience.

Bolton says that whenever alarming new earthquake data like this comes out, the media is pretty eager to spread earthquake anxiety. Trouble is, this anxiety rarely results in a better prepared general public. Complacency is common, she feels, because California’s earthquakes are relatively infrequent, compared to the way other parts of the country know how to prepare for disasters like tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. “The first thing you can do to be prepared for an earthquake is to believe it will happen,” she says.

I’m a seismologist and it terrifies me that it’s been [so] long since we’ve had a major earthquake.

A key barrier to disaster preparedness is what social scientists call “threat denial,” in which a person consciously holds an irrational or overly optimistic belief that disaster will not befall them, to “keep their mental images safe and refute anything that contradicts them,” according to a 2016 study published in the journalDisaster Prevention and Management.

The antidote to this kind of thinking, says Bolton, is education. Greater awareness of the risks of a threat can be correlated with a higher rate of disaster preparedness.That’s why Bolton is so enthusiastic about a global initiative started in California called The Great Shakeout, which teaches earthquake preparedness through drills. Last year, more than 42 million people worldwide participated.

A few tips for those trying to get prepared at home: You have less to fear from buildings or bridges collapsing on or beneath you, and a lot more to worry about when it comes to items flying off shelves, or furniture falling over. Your best bet isn’t to stand in a doorway; rather, it’s to, “drop, cover, and hold on,” says Bolton. Get underneath a sturdy table, or butt right up against the edge of a bed on the floor.

If you have camping equipment, you already are ahead of the game.

Putting together an earthquake kit is also not as big a feat as it may seem. “If you have camping equipment, you already are ahead of the game.” Food, water, and emergency supplies can generally be compiled from items already in your home such as canned goods and a first aid kit. Bolton implores people to prepare for as many as five days without support. “We have seen from other events around the world that after three days, there is not going to be some magical fairy that comes in and drops food and water and shelter. So be prepared to be self-sufficient.”

If you own your own house, or have an amenable landlord, consider earthquake retrofitting your home to its foundation and brick chimneys to the roof, says Bolton. Another important, and often overlooked component, is to acquire earthquake insurance, which is not usually included in typical homeowner’s insurance. Equally as important as keeping one’s body and property safe is having an escape plan in place. If you can’t stay in your home, it’s important to know where to go. If you know that there’s bound to be a lot of traffic on certain roads, plan some alternate routes. Be sure to establish a meeting place with your loved ones in case you’re separated from each other. Designate an out-of-town point person you can all call and check in with to let them know you’re okay.

A sample ShakeAlert message. Image via USGS

Your level of loss in and after an earthquake will be directly linked to your level of preparedness. Fortunately, in the near future, Californians should soon have access to an early warning earthquake detection system that could buy them precious seconds (and up to a minute and a half) to protect themselves. Following a similar model’s success in Japan, the United States Geological System (USGS) is testing its own program, Shake Alert. Though still in the experimental phase, ShakeAlert is being beta tested among select users as part of a White House plan for earthquake resilience, and things are looking promising so far.

Even though a functional warning system isn’t here yet, Bolton says it’s simple enough to stay safe as long as you’ve made a plan. Sure, the big one is coming soon enough, but she quotes her colleague Lucy Jones, a recently retired USGS seismologist, saying that, “The earthquake is inevitable, but the disaster isn’t.”

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Don’t Stand In The Doorway And Other Earthquake Myths