Growing Up in San Jose, CA, Melanie James practiced earthquake drills over and over again in school, at home and at work.
Back in the 1970s, the mantra was “duck and cover.” She knew that when the ground started to shake, she should steer clear of glass and tall furniture, find a sturdy table for cover and hold on until the shaking stopped.
At 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, all that practice was put to good use. That’s when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay Area. The Loma Prieta quake killed 63 people, injured 3,757 and left thousands of people homeless.
James, who worked in an office building at the time, dove under her desk when the ground started to shake violently. All around her, cubicle walls toppled, papers and office supplies flew, and fluorescent lights and ceiling tiles crashed down. Because she knew what to do, she avoided injury.
“I didn’t have to think twice about what to do,” she recalls. “My desk was in the middle of the room, and so the safest place was underneath it. I held on while the ground shook and, once it stopped, I carefully climbed my way out and calmly hurried out of the building. Thank goodness nobody in our office was hurt.”
Do you know what to do during an earthquake? Here, we’ve outlined three scenarios—at home, in a high-rise building and outside—and described what to do to keep yourself and your family safe.
When you’re at home and feel an earthquake, drop to the ground and take cover under a desk or sturdy table. Hold on tight to the table until the shaking stops—and if it moves, move with it.
If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the room. Use a doorway for shelter only if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, load-bearing doorway.
If you’re in bed, stay put. Hold on and protect your head with a pillow unless you are under a heavy light fixture that could fall, or your bed is near a window that could shatter. In that case, move to the nearest safe place.
If you’re in the kitchen, move away from the refrigerator and stove, as they could move and shift with the shaking ground. Stay away from overhead cupboards, which could easily open and lose their contents if they’re not latched shut.
No matter where you are in the house, stay away from windows, bookcases, file cabinets, heavy mirrors, hanging plants and other heavy objects that could fall. Watch out for `falling plaster, bricks and ceiling tiles.
Stay inside and under cover until the earthquake is over. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave. Remember that aftershocks may occur—and some of them can be just as jolting as the initial tremor itself.
IN A HIGH-RISE
For those who work or live in a high-rise building, the same rules as above apply—drop to the floor, take cover under a sturdy table or desk, and hold on tight until the earth stops shaking.
If you’re not near a desk or table, move against an interior wall and protect your head with your arms. Don’t be surprised if a fire alarm or sprinkler systems turn on or the electricity goes out.
No matter what, don’t use the elevators, and stay away from windows. The glass can dislodge during the quake and shatter. When the shaking stops, do not rush for the exit. Instead, leave via the fire escape in a calm, orderly manner, staying away from windows, heavy furniture and display shelves with objects that could fall.
Once you’re outside, quickly get into an open space away from the building. The area near the exterior walls of a building is the most dangerous place to be, as windows, facades and architectural details are often the first parts of the building to collapse.
AWAY FROM HOME
When you’re away from home—whether driving, at a store or outside—you have even more hazards to avoid.
If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road, stop as quickly as safety permits and set your parking brake. Avoid stopping under or on overpasses and bridges, and near or under buildings. Stay away from power lines, trees and potential dangers. Remain inside the vehicle until the shaking is over. Once the earthquake has stopped, proceed cautiously, avoiding roads, bridges or ramps that might have been compromised by the quake.
In a grocery store, debris falling from shelves will pose the greatest danger. If possible, get to an interior wall and crouch down, staying away from windows and large fixtures that could shift with the quake. If you can’t get to a safe place, lie down on the floor and protect your head with your arms. When the shaking stops, calmly exit the building, being careful of broken glass and other debris on the floor.
If you’re outside, move to a clear area away from buildings, trees, signs, streetlights, utility wires and poles. If you’re on a sidewalk near buildings and unable to get to an open space, duck into a doorway to protect yourself from falling bricks, glass, plaster and other debris. Once you’re in a clear or secure place, stay put until the shaking stops and it’s safe to venture out. Remember that debris—collapsing walls, flying glass and falling objects— can still be hazards well after the shaking stops.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Earthquakes strike without warning, but if you’re prepared and aware of what to do when one does hit, you can avoid injury. Know the “drop, cover and hold on” mantra—and always be mindful of what you’d do if the ground started shaking.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2012 print issue of American Survival Guide.