Earthquake Survival

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Given the chaos in Afghanistan, hardly any reporting has been devoted to a horrific earthquake which devastated Haiti recently. Currently, more than 2,200 are known dead and over 12,000 injured. 600,000 Haitian citizens have been affected by the 7.2 magnitude quake.

West-coasters are aware that earthquakes are a hard reality, but few really consider the threat far off the US East coast on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Yet, earthquakes here are most devastating due to the impoverished nature of the two countries. If the U.S. were suddenly thrown off the grid, we could expect similar results. In Haiti, things are so bad that gang leaders are both hindering and helping the rescue effort.

Most earthquakes occur near “fault lines.” A fault is a fracture in bedrock where movement releases energy that can cause major surface disruptions. This movement is sometimes called a “seismic wave.”

The location below the earth’s surface where the earthquake starts is called the “hypocenter”; the location directly above it on the surface of the earth is called the “epicenter.” The largest, main earthquake is called the “mainshock.” Mainshocks always have “aftershocks” that follow. These are smaller earthquakes that occur afterwards in the same place as the mainshock. Sometimes, hundreds of aftershocks may follow the mainshock.

The strength of an earthquake has been historically measured using the Richter scale. This measurement (from 0-10 or more) identifies the magnitude of tremors at a certain location. Quakes less than 2.0 on the Richter scale occur every day, but are unlikely to be noticed by the average person. Each increase of 1.0 magnitude increases the strength by a factor of 10. The highest registered one was The Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960 (9.5 on the Richter scale).

A newer measurement, the Moment Magnitude scale, calculates each point of magnitude as releasing more than 30 times the energy of the previous one. It is considered more accurate than the Richter scale, especially for higher magnitude earthquakes.

If the energy is released offshore, a “tsunami” or tidal wave may be generated. In Fukushima, Japan, a powerful earthquake (8.9 magnitude) and tsunami wreaked havoc in 2011, causing major damage, loss of life, and nuclear reactor meltdowns.

A major earthquake is especially dangerous due to its unpredictability. Unlike hurricanes, there is usually little notice given beforehand. Unless it happens in the dead of night, it’s unlikely you will all be in the house together; each member, therefore, must know what to do no matter where they are when the first tremor is felt. Planning ahead will give a medic the best chance of gathering the family or group together and making the best of a bad situation.

To be prepared, you’ll need, at the very least, the following:

  • Food and water (and water filters).
  • Power sources.
  • Alternative shelters.
  • Medical supplies.
  • Clothing appropriate to the weather.
  • Blankets.
  • Fire extinguishers.
  • Flashlights and batteries.
  • Means of communication.
  • Portable radio.
  • Money (don’t count on credit or debit cards if the power’s down).
  • Adjustable wrench to turn off gas or water.
  • Cash in small bills.
  • Whistle or other noisemaker (in case you’re trapped under debris).

In high-risk areas, most schools have strategies to employ in case of earthquakes. This may involve moving children to shelters. Be aware of your municipality’s plan of action so you’ll know where to find your kids.

It would be appropriate to always have a “get-home” bag put together at work or in the car. Some food, liquids, and a pair of sturdy, comfortable shoes are useful items to have available.

Especially important to know is where your gas, electric, and water main shutoffs are at home. Make sure that everyone who’s old enough has an idea of how to turn them off if there’s a leak or electrical short. Know where the nearest medical facility is but be aware that you may be on your own. Roads will be damaged and medical responders are going to be overwhelmed; they’re unlikely to reach you quickly.

Before The Quake Hits

Considering the unpredictability of quakes, it’s important to do everything possible to minimize damage and prevent injuries before they occur. It may not be possible to completely “earthquake-proof” a home, but some simple planning can make a big difference.

Look around your house for fixtures like chandeliers and shelving that might not be stable enough to withstand a quake. Make sure that any heavy or breakable items are on the bottom shelves or on the floor. Bookcases should be secured to the walls. Remove art or other items over the headboards of beds. Flat screen TVs, especially large ones, could easily topple if not anchored. Secure weed killers, pesticides, and other flammable items in closed containers away from common areas.

When The Quake Hits

What should you do when the tremors start? If you’re indoors, remember to Drop, Cover, and Hold On. Drop and get under a table, desk, mattress, or other solid cover, and hold on. If nothing’s available, huddle against the inside corner of a room and cover your head with your hands. Be sure to stay clear of windows, shelves, and kitchen areas.

If the building is shaking violently, don’t try to run out; Most injuries seem to occur when falling downstairs or struck by debris. Avoid elevators. Don’t be surprised if the electricity goes out, fire alarms ring, and sprinkler systems activate.

You’ve probably heard that standing in a doorway is safest because of the frame’s sturdiness. It turns out that, in modern homes, many doorways aren’t more solid than any other part of the structure.

Once the initial tremors are over, get outside. Once there, stay as far away from power lines, chimneys, walls, and anything else that could fall on top of you.

What if you’re in the car when the earthquake hits? Get out of traffic as quickly as possible; other drivers are likely to be less level-headed than you are. Don’t stop under bridges, trees, overpasses, power lines, or light posts: They may collapse. Stay in your vehicle while the tremors are active.

In The Aftermath

Should you go home? If you’re in a coastal area, there might be the risk for tsunamis. In that case, it’s best to head inland. If your residence is heavily damaged, it may be dangerous to enter. Err on the side of caution and watch out for aftershocks.

One issue to be concerned about is gas leaks; make sure you don’t use your camp stoves, lighters, or even matches until you’re certain all is clear. Even a match could ignite a spark that could lead to an explosion. If you turned the gas off, you might consider letting the utility company turn it back on.

Wear personal protection gear including long pants, long sleeves, boots, gloves, and eyewear while cleaning up debris. Be wary of lifting heavy objects without assistance.

Don’t count on telephone service after a natural disaster. Most only have the capacity to deal with 20 percent of call volume at any one time. Interestingly, you’ll have a better chance of communicating via texts due to the wavelength used.

Even if phone service is out, you can monitor local news reports on a battery operated or hand crank radio. Be vigilant about emergency alerts and instructions.

Trapped Under Debris

Recently, the plight of people involved in a building collapse made the news when a building collapsed in Surfside, Florida. In the worst possible earthquake scenario, you may find yourself trapped under debris. In this circumstance, you’ll probably be inhaling a great deal of dust, so cover your face with an article of clothing or anything else that will serve as a barrier. Don’t light matches, as gas leaks could cause an explosion. Use anything you can to tap on something solid to let people know where you are. If you live in an earthquake zone, it’s a wise move to attach a whistle to your keychain. These are better options than shouting, which can exhaust you pretty quickly.

Hopefully, an earthquake isn’t in your future, but armed with a plan of action, it can be just a bump on the road and not the end of the road for you and your family.

Joe Alton MD

Joe Alton MD

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