Miraculously, we all survived the 7.0 quake in Alaska that left significant damage to households, businesses, and infrastructure. I say miraculously because in large part, I think we all got very lucky. A earthquake of that magnitude so close to the most densely populated portion of the state put a lot of people at great risk for injury, or even death. Now that we got lucky, let’s take some time to see what to do in an earthquake and also what you should do after the shaking stops.
Arming yourself with a bit of knowledge for the DURING and the AFTER portion of the quake just might save your life, or the lives of people around you at the time. We will cover what you should have done BEFORE the quake from an emergency preparedness standpoint very soon.
What to Do in an Earthquake
The next time (and yes, its a matter of when not if) you find yourself facing a significant earthquake, what you do and how you react can largely depend on where you are at the time. Are you inside? Are you outside? Are you sleeping? Are you driving? Your present location at the time matters and because these things happen without any warning, knowing what to do in a variety of situations is important.
For all intents and purposes, the statistics show us that you should DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON. While some specific situations may require you to tweak this basic principle, if you do this, you will more than likely reduce your chances of injury during the quake.
DROP – Drop right where you are, on your hands and knees. Getting low to the ground prevents you from being knocked down from the violent movement of the ground or floor beneath you. It also allows you to be able to crawl, if needed, to somewhere nearby for additional shelter. Statistically speaking, people moving from one part of a building to another during an earthquake leaves more people injured than those who stay put.
COVER – Use your arm and hand to cover your head and neck. Because you’re already low to the ground, you do have the chance to quickly crawl to a sturdy table, desk, or other substantial piece of furniture that you could gain additional shelter under. If you find yourself not near any shelter, situate yourself near an interior wall away from windows if possible.
HOLD ON – You’ve now crawled under a table, you’re face down covering your head and neck with one arm. If you don’t have any cover, use both arms and hands to protect your head and neck. The next thing to do would be to hold on until the shaking stops. Stay put and resist the urge to get up and run outside.
Where are you?
Now lets talk about a few specific situations that might help you gain some perspective on protecting yourself while you might be working, shopping, driving, or even sleeping.
In Bed – If you’re sleeping, stay in bed. Waking up to that kind of chaos might mean you would want to start moving through your home, in the dark, not fully awake. The better bet is to stay in bed, lay face down on your mattress and utilize your pillow and blankets to give your head and neck additional protection. Curl up into a ball just as you would during the DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON steps. The only situation the might warrant moving to a nearby safe space would be if you have a large light fixture or heavy item that could fall on top of you while in bed.
Side Note: Parents, teach your children these same techniques. If the child is old enough to follow your instruction, everyone is better off staying put. You certainly can’t help your family if you try to gain access to your kids and get injured along the way. For parents of babies and toddlers, other preventative measures and considerations could be used like paying attention to where a crib is situated, making sure its not situated next to a wall with decoration or shelving that could fall on the child. Put some thought into how your nursery is setup for an earthquake.
Inside – This is a generalization, but the same technique applies; DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON. Things to note is to avoid exterior walls, windows, glass of any kind, large objects hanging from the walls or ceiling (in Alaska we often have animal mounts on the walls, stay away from falling horns and antlers!). Resist the urge to run outside. Windows and decorative portions of the exterior are often some of the first items to fail and fall to the ground.
In a Classroom – If you’re a school teacher, this applies to you. If you have school children, teach them the same. DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON. Often classroom desks are robust enough to ward off common falling objects from the ceiling in a classroom setting. We all saw photos of elementary, middle, and high-schools with hanging light fixtures, falling elements from the familiar drop ceilings, and book casings tipping over. Get under your desk, stay there until the shaking stops, and do not attempt to exit the classroom or building.
The photo below shows a little bit of the damage Colony Middle School suffered during the quake, You can see the drop ceiling is severely damaged and that there was a ton of overhead hazards. Note that most debris is on top of the desks and not below them. Secondly I think its ironic that the banner on the wall says ‘Theme: Survival’.
At the Office – Office work might be anything from working the front desk of a dental office to being a dozen levels up in a high-rise. Again, you should apply the DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON technique detailed above. Do NOT use the elevator during or after the quake, and if you are working at a sturdy desk, this would likely be the first choice for gaining cover before you get into a tight little ball and ride the quake out. Like the classrooms, office spaces often have a drop ceiling which will quickly shed lighting fixtures, metal supports from the ceiling structure itself, and even duct work.
Shopping/In a Store – Same as before, quickly implement the DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON technique. Considerations for these environments would be that you may find yourself squarely between walls of shelving that could dump its contents onto you or even the shelving itself could topple over. Getting next to your shopping cart may provide you with some protection from falling shelving as the cart itself would absorb most, if not all, of the energy from the falling shelf. If you can get under a sturdy display table, or even under a metal clothing display, these may be good options as well.
Outside – If you find yourself outside during a large earthquake, you may be in a slightly better situation since the chances of having suspended objects above or near you is largely diminished. However, the same rules apply. DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON. Considerations for being outside in an earthquake include moving, if possible, away from trees which may have large limbs break off and fall to the ground, moving away from power lines, and also keeping clear of vehicles and buildings.
Driving – Some drivers during this quake reported that they either felt vertigo, thought their car was sustaining serious mechanical failure, or they didn’t even feel it at all. If you are at the wheel during a quake, DR—-JUST KIDDING! This is the one time you won’t be following the above rules. Safely navigate your vehicle to the side of the road, stop, put the car in park AND set the parking brake. Your car will likely provide more protection from surrounding objects than you would find elsewhere, so stay in your vehicle until the shaking stops. If a power pole or wire falls on your car, DO NOT get out. Stay where you are, and call for emergency services to assist you in this situation. This will require specific instructions and help from professionals.
What NOT to Do in an Earthquake
Growing up we often heard lots of ‘good advice’ as to what to do during an earthquake, where to go, where to stand, and other bits that people clung to. Let’s dispel a few of those myths now.
Myth #1: Head for the Doorway! – This saying comes from an old photograph (which everyone talks about but is surprisingly hard to find) of a collapsed adobe home with the door frame as the only part that was left standing. This caused decades of people to be taught, erroneously, that doorways are stronger than other parts of your home. This is not true. If you live in a modern home and not an adobe house, the doorway is no stronger than other parts of the home. Get under a desk or table, stay there, and wait it out. You’re much safer here.
Myth #2: Run Outside! – We covered this above, but it almost seems logical to get outside where there is less to fall and hurt you. While this might be true, getting outside during the quake is what is statistically going to leave you injured as compared to staying put. Its not the outside that is less safe, its the journey there. Stay put. You’re much safer there.
Myth #3: Get in the Triangle of Life! – You may have seen a chain email (for those who don’t use email, its basically what Facebook is now…lots of random stuff in your feed, but it used to be in your inbox. Yes, I’m dating myself) a while back or even an info-graphic floating around that dissuaded you from following the proven DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON in favor of positioning yourself next to a large object which supposedly provided a void where you would be if something fell on the object you were next to and then fell to the floor. This erroneous advice makes several assumptions about how buildings react to earthquakes, how stuff inside might always fall, and that you will always find one of these ‘triangles of life’ to get into during an earthquake. This is a very hazardous technique and should not be followed.
What to do After an Earthquake
What to do after an earthquake can largely depend on how large the quake was, how severely your home/office/school/etc was damaged, and potentially how injured you might be.
For the purposes of this article, we will assume that the situation is largely what happened during this last 7.0 quake that we have just endured. I will boil the situation down to that you are largely OK, there is some damage to your home, which is where you were at the time and that infrastructure could be compromised around your immediate area, potentially limiting entry/egress from where you are.
First perform a quick self-evaluation. Are you hurt? If so, you’ll need to evaluate how hurt and if you need assistance. If you need medical attention, attempt to call/text for help if communications are still up. If others around you are hurt, provide assistance to them and help get others to safety if you can do so.
Immediately after the initial shaking, the first thing to expect is…more earthquakes. Alaskans have experienced more than 1,800 aftershocks in less than a weeks time since the first quake. Because you don’t know if there are going to be more earthquakes, your primary focus is going to be getting out of the potentially damaged building you are in.
If you’re wondering how the aftershock sequence looks to a seismometer, here is the last 24 hours of data from our Rabbit Creek station. We’re up to around 1,800 now, the great majority of which were too small to feel. pic.twitter.com/HxO6BMxrWq
— AK Earthquake Center (@AKearthquake) December 4, 2018
Once you have determined that your home might be OK to assess for damage, you’ll now focus on mitigating other hazards that might have been created from the quake. Those additional hazards could be:
-Natural Gas Leaks
-Damaged Electrical Wiring
-Broken Water Lines
-Potential Falling Objects
Natural Gas Leaks – Many of the fires that start as a result from an earthquake are from damaged or parted natural gas supply lines that release gas into a home or nearby a home until that gas finds an ignition source. An explosion, or at least a fire can result from this. Installing automatic shutoff valves on your gas supply line or at least knowing how to manually turn off the gas supply to your home is a very important bit of safety to be familiar with. If you’re renting, ask your landlord where the shut-off valve is. Once you find it, the best strategy would be to tie or wire a tool near or on this valve so you aren’t searching for a wrench in this chaos!
Damaged Electrical Wiring – If you suspect, or see, damaged electrical wiring, have downed lines on your house or property, or feel the need to cut power to your home, knowing how to shut off your homes electricity at your main electrical panel is good to know. If you cannot access the inside of your home or want to shut off power at your main feed, shutting off the power at the main disconnect is also an option.
Broken Water Lines – While water leaking into your house likely poses less of an immediate hazard than leaking gas and damaged electrical wiring, it is a good idea to know how to turn off the water supplying your home as well. If you are on a well, turning the power off to your home will also shut off your well pump, but for those on a city water system, you will need to find the supply valve before damaged water lines stop filling your home with water. Please note that each area/city/water utility company might have a slightly different situation for shutting off a main water supply line, so do your due diligence and learn how to do this for your specific home. This valve may be located inside, outside, in your crawlspace, or even underground near the street in some cases.
Spilled Chemicals – During the shaking, many items could have been knocked from their storage compartments including household chemicals and cleaning supplies. While this sounds pretty benign, the chemicals in your home we call ‘toilet bowl cleaner’, ‘bleach’, ‘vinegar’, ‘rubbing alcohol’, and more are often very corrosive, acidic, and highly reactive with other common goods in your cabinets. The dangers of coming into contact with these or even cross contaminating these chemicals can result in deadly toxic vapors, damage to your eyes and respiratory system, and more. Know the dangerous household chemicals in your home, don’t store reactive chemicals near each other, and clean up any spills quickly and dispose of properly.
Potential Falling Objects – This seems like a no-brainer, but giving your home a top to bottom thorough inspection of things that might have become loose, or have the potential to either tip over, fall off a shelf, or otherwise fall to the ground after the quake is the next step. Ensure that once you begin the clean up process that you aren’t exposing yourself to more hazards that you didn’t see because you weren’t looking for them.
So now you’re safe, you’ve evaluated whether or not you needed to take further action on your home regarding the potential shutting off of your gas/electrical/water lines and taken a thorough walk-through of your home to remove any other hazards that you find. Depending on the severity of the quake, the next steps are going to be survival. You may find yourself in the dead of winter without power or gas, it might be in the middle of the night, and likely grocery stores are going to be wiped out of food quickly, if they are even open to begin with.
I cannot stress how badly a situation like this could look for Alaska in the wintertime with minimal ways of getting supplies in and out of the state, so taking action NOW to figure out what your post-earthquake situation needs to look like is paramount. Here are some good questions to ask yourself:
-If the quake happened in the winter, how could I keep myself or my home warm if needed?
-How many days of food am I comfortable with having as an emergency supply?
-How much water will I need for drinking, per person, per day?
-How would I boil water, if needed, and cook my meals?
-How will I provide security for my family from looters, rioters, or other potential hazards from people?
-How will I communicate with others? Do I need a HAM radio? Do I need an emergency radio? What channels do I listen to?
-How will I travel nearby to look for help, food, supplies, others?
-Does the rest of my family, children included, know where to go as a rendezvous point if we are separated?
-What are some basic survival skills for the area I’m in? How do I learn these skills?
If we took the time to elaborate on all the questions above, it would take volumes of text to thoroughly cover all the necessary information if the situation was as bad as it could be. Again, we got lucky…VERY lucky this time. Instead of pulling bodies from rubble, people freezing to death, and whatever else could happen from a worst case scenario perspective, Alaskans had the luxury of creating memes, cleaning up their homes, and replacing a few items.
We got lucky this time, so let’s use it as a wake-up-call to be prepared for next time. As Benjamin Franklin wrote: ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ Get prepared.