How to turn a scary earthquake into a positive learning experience

By Gordon Williams

The earthquake which struck the Seattle/Snohomish County area early in the morning of July 12, 2019 was scary enough — the strongest quake to strike the area in 18 years. Still, the Washington Military Department — parent agency of the state’s Department of Emergency Management — wants us to see the temblor as a learning experience, calling it “a wake-up call” to remind us the state is deep in earthquake country.

“We’re fortunate this morning’s quake caused minimal damage,” said the statement from the state’s military administrator. “We might not be so lucky next time. Let’s use this morning’s event as a reminder about the need to be personally prepared.”

Fortunately, there is plenty of material available to help you safeguard your family and home from future quakes.

usgs.gov

The Military Department has its own list of preparedness tips, found at mil.wa.gov/preparedness. One such tip is to keep practicing the basic earthquake survival routine of “drop, cover and hold on.” At the first sign of shaking, drop to the ground, cover yourself against falling objects and hold onto something sturdy until the shaking stops. The more you practice that, says the Military Department posting, the more that “muscle memory” will make it your instinctive response to a quake.

The Department has just released an earthquake video — an animated version of its “earthquake infographic.” The colorful, easy to grasp infographic, now available in video form, tells you how to respond to a quake no matter where you are: indoors, in bed, in a high-rise, while driving. You’ll find that at mil.wa.gov.

Also, registration is now open for the 2019 version of the Great Washington Shakeout. At 10:17 a.m. on October 17, 2019, around three-quarters of a million Washingtonians and more than 12 million people world-wide, will drop, cover and hold on, just as they would during a real quake. You can register at www.shakeout.org/washington. If you can’t do your drill on the 17th, you can pick another date when you register. You will get lots of preparedness material once you register.

If you want to build up some of that earthquake survival muscle memory, the Great Washington Shakeout is a super place to start. And since quakes can trigger tsunamis, the Shakeout will be accompanied by a test of the tsunami warning sirens along the Washington seacoast.

So if the Snohomish County quake is to be a learning experience, what are the preparedness lessons you should be learning?

One lesson from the state emergency management team is, “Make sure you have food, water and medications at home so you and your family can get by on your own for a while.” It suggests having enough for two weeks but adds, “if that is out of reach, go ahead and start smaller. Something is better than nothing.” Also, “plan and review your family’s communication plan. Make sure you know how you will get in touch and reunite with loved ones after a disaster.”

There is also advice for those who felt the shake and stayed in bed. The official word is that staying in bed is a good thing during a quake. In fact, the Red Cross earthquake application — available free from both the Apple Store and Google Play — also advises staying in bed if you are sleeping when a quake hits. “Curl up and stay there and cover yourself with whatever is at hand,” says the Red Cross app. “A pillow is better than nothing.”

The Red Cross app advises quake-proofing your home by securing everything that could injure or kill someone during a quake. Bolt and brace water heaters and gas appliances to wall studs to keep them from falling over in a quake. Tall pieces of furniture—bookcases, china cabinets and the like—should be bolted to wall studs. Anchor overhead lighting fixtures to ceiling joists. Put strong latches on all cabinets to keep the contents from crashing out in a quake. Place heavy objects on lower shelves so no one is hurt if they fall. Take down pictures or mirrors that have been hung above places where people sit or sleep. 

Next you should know how to how to stay safe during a quake.  That’s where drop, cover and hold on comes into play. At the very first tremble, drop to your knees, crawl under a table or desk to protect yourself from falling objects, and hold on to something sturdy until the quake ends. If there is nothing to crawl under for cover, stay against an interior wall with no windows.

You may have been told that a doorway was a safe place to be during a quake. The Red Cross app warns that, “doorways are no stronger than any other part of the structure.” 

Don’t venture outside until the shaking stops. Before leaving the building, look around and up to be sure there is nothing that might fall on you. Check for any fires and put them out. Fires are the most common post-quake hazard. Beware of live electrical wires that have come down. Turn off electric power and leave it off until all downed power lines are taken care of and a professional says your electrical system is safe.

Finally, assume the quake will be followed by one or more aftershocks, as our recent quake was. You dropped, covered and held on during the first shock. Do exactly the same at each aftershock until the quake has run its course.

For more earthquake safety information visit RedCross.org

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