Busting the myths of earthquake survival
If Vancouverites want to be prepared for the Big One, they should look to lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy. More than a month after that storm tore through the eastern United States, some people there are still without power. Carlos E. Ventura, director of UBC’s Earthquake Engineering Research Facility, says that people here need to be prepared to meet their basic needs for an extended period of time should an earthquake wreak havoc on their home.
“One of the most commonly overlooked preparedness strategies…is not expecting that help will arrive shortly after the earthquake in case serious damage to the house has happened,” Ventura tells the Georgia Straight. “So is knowing how to do a quick inspection of the house to determine [if] it is safe to stay inside it.
“Learning more about what earthquakes can do and how to react during and after the shaking is also overlooked,” he adds, noting that it’s crucial to have a family response plan as well as a Plan B in case emergency services aren’t available.
Being ready for the potentially devastating effects of an earthquake involves much more than having bottles of water on hand and placing a pair of shoes under your bed.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is not securing water heaters as well as tall cabinets and shelves that could fall over during severe shaking. “Chimneys made of unreinforced masonry are a serious hazard,” Ventura says. “The list [of hazards] is long.”
The City of Vancouver offers free emergency workshops, including ones that address apartment living and how to keep a pet safe during a natural disaster.
One of the key messages the City of Vancouver offers about staying safe during an earthquake is this: “Drop, cover, and hold on.” If you haven’t already been knocked over by the earthquake, get on the ground, take cover under a sturdy table or desk, and grab on to a table leg and keep holding until the shaking stops. If there’s no table nearby, don’t run to another room. Rather, stay where you are, cover your face and head with your arms, and crouch down in a corner of the room.
The main goal of the “drop, cover, and hold on” approach is to reduce the risk of being injured by nonstructural hazards such as loose objects in your home, parts of the ceiling falling, and books and other things falling off shelves, the city’s website notes. It also increases the likelihood that you’ll end up in a survivable void space if your home collapses.
“Many studies of injuries and deaths caused by earthquakes in the U.S. over the past several decades show that you are much more likely to be injured by falling or flying objects—such as TVs, lamps, glass, bookcases—than to be killed in a collapsed building,” the site states.
Above all, do not follow the “triangle of life” theory of how to survive a major earthquake. This method, which was developed by New Mexico–based self-described disaster expert Douglas Copp, entails crouching next to a table or desk instead of under one. His technique has been refuted by several North American safety organizations.
“Mr. Copp’s assertion…that everyone is always crushed if they get under something is incorrect,” Rocky Lopes, then the American Red Cross’s manager of community disaster education, said in the organization’s official response to Copp’s theory. Lopes noted that Copp developed his approach after observing the aftermath of earthquakes in other countries, including Turkey, that have different building codes and standards than Canada and the U.S.
“It is like ‘apples and oranges’ to compare building construction standards, techniques, engineering principles, and construction materials between Turkey and the United States,” Lopes stated. “Engineering researchers have demonstrated that very few buildings collapse or ‘pancake’ in the U.S. as they might do in other countries.…We contend that ‘Drop, Cover, and Hold On’ indeed saved lives, not killed people.…It is the simplest, reliable, and easiest method to teach people, including children.”
The American Red Cross and the City of Vancouver both warn against standing in a doorway during an earthquake. “In modern homes, doorways are no stronger than the rest of the building,” according to the City of Vancouver. “They also cannot protect you from falling or flying objects.”
And do not run outside. “Trying to run during an earthquake is dangerous,” the city’s website states. “The ground is moving, which can cause you to fall and hurt yourself on debris or glass on the ground. At the same time, glass, bricks, and other building materials may be falling. It is much safer to stay inside and get under a table.”
Emergency kits for the home are vital, the city says. Besides water and food (which need to be replenished once the expiry dates pass), these should include cutlery and disposable cups and plates. Then there are “grab and go” evacuation kits, which should be designated for each family member. These should consist of water, candles and matches, spare clothes, first-aid supplies, a flashlight and batteries, at least a week’s worth of any necessary prescription medication, and toilet paper, among other items. You should have a separate emergency kit in your car, too.
You might have to set up emergency sanitation if water and sewage lines are damaged. Learn how to set up temporary toilets and how to dispose of human waste to avoid getting sick.
With a one-in-three chance that a major earthquake will hit Vancouver within the next 20 to 50 years, the City of Vancouver recommends abiding by this motto: “Be prepared, not scared.”