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Drop, cover and hold on: Some tips for staying safe during an earthquake

March 17, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times
  • Staying away from doorways is a good idea during an earthquake. This house was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake
Staying away from doorways is a good idea during an earthquake. This house… (Los Angeles Times )

With devastating images still coming from Japan following the earthquakes and tsunamis, earthquake safety and preparedness is on the top of Californians' minds. Although we may think we know what to do in the event of a strong quake, we may not be thinking clearly when the earth starts to shake. Here's what to do--and what not to do--in the event of an earthquake:

If you're indoors, the American Red Cross advises you to drop, cover and hold on. Duck under a sturdy table or desk and hold onto a leg in case the table moves. If you're in bed, stay there, and protect your head with a pillow.

If you're not able to duck under a table, go to an interior wall and cover your head, says Monica Diaz, communications director for the American Red Cross's Los Angeles region. "Most buildings in the U.S. are built with earthquake safety codes," she says, "so most buildings are not going to collapse." If a structure does collapse, she adds, typically the exterior walls are most susceptible.

Do not stand under a doorway. That space will be crowded if there are several people in a room, says Richard McCarthy, executive director of the California Seismic Safety Commission. More importantly, he adds, doorways are not safe: "If you saw the footage from Japan you saw doors swinging back and forth. Some are very heavy and you can get injured."

Parents running to protect their children is a normal impulse, say Diaz and McCarthy, but after that regular procedures should be followed: duck under a sturdy table and hold on. Pets may run off, but McCarthy says not to run after them. "They're going to be scared, but you have to take care of yourself and your family first. I know it's a hard decision to make, but chasing a dog or cat outside would be a mistake."

The myth that doorways are a safe place probably originated decades ago, says Diaz, when earthquake-vulnerable adobe buildings would crumble, leaving only the doorways standing. "If you stand in a doorway you can get your fingers jammed," she says.

Footage from the Japan quake also shows people running out of buildings into the street. Not a great idea either, although your instincts may say otherwise, McCarthy says. "If you run outside you risk being hit by falling debris such as window glass, bricks, and even furniture that might fall from an upper floor." While there's no 100% guarantee that a building won't collapse, he adds, it's a safer bet to stay indoors.

If you are caught outside during a earthquake, the Red Cross advises to find a clear spot, drop to the ground and stay there until the quake stops. Try to get away from buildings, power lines, trees and streetlights--anything that might fall or drop debris.

If in a car, pull over to the side of the road and stay there until the earthquake stops. If you get out you may risk being hit by another car.

Be prepared for aftershocks. "The bigger the quake, the bigger the aftershocks," McCarthy says. "If you're at the beach and fear a tsunami, go to higher ground." Don't wait for an official warning, he says. "It may not get to you in time."

And please don't call 911 and ask if there was, indeed, an earthquake. Yes, people actually do that, McCarthy says, and it ties up precious emergency lines. If cellphones or land lines are dead, try text messaging, or see if computers are working. If possible, designate an out-of-state contact with whom family members can call and check in.

Practice makes perfect, says Diaz. "Make a plan an practice it so when an earthquake happens, you're not panicking. You'll be able to react calmly."

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