Sep 292011

"Office after the Tokyo earthquake, March 11, 2011." Photo by hawken king. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

When the recent Virginia earthquake occurred, we were caught unprepared.  As I mentioned earlier, from my vantage point inside the house in a room with the curtains drawn, I did not actually identify it as an earthquake at the time, thought it was a freak tornado or hurricane and headed to the basement!

After this experience, I wanted to review my earthquake preparedness knowledge.  I grew up in the earthquake-prone state of Utah and the knowledge I remembered was to get in a doorway or under a desk or other sturdy object.  It turns out this is sort-of correct.  Based on current information from, here are a few pointers we should remember about earthquakes.

#1: Running Outside May Not Be the Best Strategy

Our greatest risk of death during an earthquake is generally not from structures collapsing but from falling debris.  However, perhaps with images from Haiti fresh in mind, many people in the east coast quake felt that the best thing to do was to run outside!  My visual-spatial husband explained to me that in Haiti most buildings collapsed because of the way they are inexpensively constructed with cinderblocks and heavy, concrete roofs.  When a roof is heavier than the walls of a structure, it will tend to collapse.  For modern U.S. construction, this rarely happens.  We can note that in Japan’s 9.0 earthquake, there were very few reports of building collapses and in the east coast earthquake, even the historic homes from the 1800’s survived the quake with minimal damage.

“The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls.   Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls.” Earthquakes

#2: Watch Out for Brick and Stone

Most people know to avoid glass and windows during an earthquake but the same applies to brick and stone.  Brick and stone don’t seem to handle earthquakes quite as well as wood.  In the Fredericksburg area, during the recent quake, most damage was to brick structures like chimneys.  Washington National Cathedral in DC saw several of the decorative stone carvings on one of its towers fall.  In my neighborhood, for example, we definitely felt our wood-framed house shake like it was in a washing machine during the earthquake but we saw pretty much zero damage (so far).  We don’t recall anything falling over or falling off of shelves.  A neighbor one block away in a brick house saw her dining room chairs fall over and some pictures fall off the wall.

During an earthquake you need to be alert for any overhead stone or brick structures and avoid them.  Stay away from the fireplace, or, if outside, the chimney.  After an earthquake, inspect your chimney for damage to the bricks and mortar, preferably hiring a professional to do this.  This was a helpful flier from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on chimney inspection.

Here is the post-earthquake inspection process for the Washington Monument.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

#3: Stay Away from Tall, Heavy or Hazardous Stuff That Falls

Inside a building, probably our greatest risk during an earthquake is that we will be crushed by our stuff.  A heavy bookcase, curio cabinet or entertainment center could fall over and crush us.  Heavy mirrors, light fixtures or framed objects could fall off the wall and crush or injure us.  If you live in an earthquake prone region you should probably avoid putting heavy or hazardous objects overhead.  If you use tall shelves for storage, make sure you bolt them to the wall.    If you can, use ground-level storage solutions instead.

Earthquake Storage Tip: If you have tall bookcases like this one, make sure they are bolted to the wall and consider moving heavy objects to the bottom shelves.

Earthquake Storage Tip: If you have the space, consider floor cabinets, storage benches and other close-to-the-ground storage. Put small, lightweight objects on the walls.

#4: The new mantra is “Drop to the Ground, Take Cover and Hold On”

I have to say this mantra doesn’t entirely make sense to me.  If you happen to be standing or sitting right near a heavy, sturdy object that you can get under when the earthquake hits, you are lucky.  Most of us could be next to a window or a heavy bookcase.  In that case, the mantra might be “Take a quick look around (and up!), avoid the biggest dangers, run/crawl to the safest nearby spot, then drop to the ground, take cover and hold on.”  Also, the “Hold On” portion is confusing.  Sometimes there is nothing to hold on to!  But I suppose you could reinterpret this to be a mental “Hold on! It will be over soon!”

There are many other tips at for earthquake preparedness that I encourage you to read.  From an organizing perspective, the biggest lesson is to be thoughtful about our stuff and where we put it.  Take a moment in the spaces you most frequently inhabit and:

Look up.  What is overhead that could fall?

Look around.  Is there anything heavy like a bookcase that could tip over?  Could you reorganize these spaces so they are more sturdy with the heavier objects on the bottom shelves?

Look for glass, brick or stone.  Where could you go to avoid these areas?

What sturdy furniture could you duck under?  Is there a load-bearing doorframe could you stand under?

As you are organizing your spaces, keep these ideas in mind so that hopefully you have at least one minimally safe zone in each room.

What do you think of the new earthquake guidance?  Does it answer or raise more questions for you?  Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on September 29, 2011 General Tagged with: , ,
Jan 152010

The tragedy in Haiti weighs on my thoughts lately and I am shocked and saddened by almost every news report I am reading.  I have made a donation to the American Red Cross and understand that money is what is most needed at the moment.  I am proud of the efforts being make by the United States to aid in this tragedy and hope that with the intervention of the U.S. and other countries, the people of Haiti can be spared even more suffering.

Today’s post is about thinking through what is happening in Haiti and finding lessons to prepare ourselves in the event of natural disaster.

While I grew up in the mountainous state of Utah, which geologically should have a regular number of earthquakes, I only remember experiencing one very small earthquake in Utah.  It happened during a high school math test.  The desks began shifting back and forth just slightly.  “Should we get under our desks?” one student asked.  “No. Keep working,” came the reply from our lovable but challenging math teacher.  Sure enough, the quake ended in a few seconds and there was no damage to speak of.

It took an overseas trip to Greece to experience a “real” earthquake.  My sisters and I were on a heritage trip to Greece with our grandmother.  While we were staying in a hotel in the mountains of Delphi, a moderate earthquake occurred in the middle of the night.  We were awakened by the bed rigidly moving two feet forward and two feet back, and the rattling noises of doors, furniture and objects.  To say that it was terrifying is an understatement!  We ran to a doorway while the quake happened.  Fortunately there was no major damage and no one was injured.  Within our international tour group, however, there was panic and chaos.  “What should we do?” we all asked each other.  “I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m getting dressed!” called out a sassy grandmother from Texas.  And so at about 3 a.m. there we all were, packed and dressed standing out in the lobby of the hotel (except for the Japanese tourists, who later told us that they woke up when the quake hit, said, “Oh, it’s just an earthquake,” rolled over and went back to bed!).  Aftershocks rolled in, first every half hour or so.  Each aftershock brought on a major case of nerves and fear.  It is hard to describe how unsettling it feels to know that there is nowhere safe on the earth for you to go.  Inside is just as unsafe as outside.  Underground the same as above ground.  The only “safety” is being in the air above the earth’s surface.  We tried to stay calm as the water glasses rattled at breakfast and the ground beneath our feet vibrated.    Gradually, the aftershocks came less and less frequently and were lesser in intensity.   The day continued as normal for us and for most people in Greece as well.  I don’t know the magnitude of that earthquake.  If I had to guess, perhaps it was a 4 or maybe a 5.

The people of Haiti have just experienced a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than what I have ever experienced.  The earthquake I experienced would be “just” an aftershock to them.  Buildings have collapsed, people are suffering grievous injuries and are trapped without water, food or shelter.  Many have no access to medical care and while rescuers are on the scene, there are sure to be many who will not be rescued for several days or perhaps a week.  These brave people must have the peace of mind to look out for their own survival even as they are coping with the grief of losing loved ones and wrestling with their own fears.

What would you do if you were a Haitian right now?  As I thought through this terrifying question, it pointed out a lot of weaknesses in my own emergency preparations.  For example, if your house collapses and you can’t access your emergency food or water stores, it is just the same as if you didn’t make any preparations at all.  While I have come up with theoretical possibilities to address this (spread the food stores in different places in your home, bury them outside in an underground emergency shelter, etc.) we have to realize that there are weaknesses in every plan and sometimes we will be alone and unprepared.

During the recent east coast snowstorm, I found that one of the best emergency preparations you can have is a network of people who live near you and care for your welfare and a communication method to stay in touch with them.  In a disaster of the magnitude Haiti is facing, no one can survive this completely on their own.  People will have to reach out to their neighbors, friends and strangers, share their talents and supplies and put group needs above individual ones.  This is all very difficult to say the least.

What would an expert survivalist do in Haiti?  I turn to my trusted guide, “The SAS Survival Handbook” by John “Lofty” Wiseman, which I received from my wonderful sister-in-law for Christmas and which I highly recommend that everyone purchase for their own emergency preparations.

Mr. Wiseman uses the acronym PLAN for the priority things you should do in a survival situation like the earthquake in Haiti:

P – Protection – “You must ensure you are protected from further danger. . . .   Ideally evacuate to an open area. . . . Do NOT shelter in damaged buildings or ruins.  Build a shelter from debris.”

L – Location – “[P]ut out emergency signals.  You must draw attention to your position.”   “Stay tuned to a local radio station for up-to-date reports and advice. . . Turn off gas, electricity and water if advised to do so.“

A – Acquisition – “While waiting to be rescued, look for water and food.”  “Don’t wait until you have run out of water before you look for it. . . . The average human  requires the minimum of [about 8.5 oz] of water per day to survive.”

N – Navigation – “Good navigation will keep you on route and will often avert a survival situation.  But if you find yourself stranded, always stay where you are.”

–Excerpts from “The SAS Survival Handbook” by John “Lofty” Wiseman

Some other tips:

Keep a positive attitude.  “When facing a disaster it is easy to let yourself go, to collapse and be consumed in self-pity. . . Only positive action can save you.”

Emphasize hygiene as much as you can. “Rupture of sewage systems, contamination of water and the hazards of the bodies trapped in the wreckage can all make the risk of disease as deadly as the earthquake itself. . . . Filter and boil all water. . . . Bury all corpses, animal and human.”

Maintain your own health. “You must become your own doctor and carefully monitor yourself at all times. . . . Do not take any unnecessary risks that could lead to injury.”

–Excerpts from “The SAS Survival Handbook” by John “Lofty” Wiseman

These sobering tips help to remind us that there isn’t a simple or quick formula for survival situations.  Survival requires agility, flexibility, creativity and even a little bit of luck.  We can improve our chances with some preparation but we need to be ready to abandon established plans and create new ones quickly too.

Haitians, we are praying for you!  This disaster requires not only attention now but in the future as well, long after it has disappeared from popular news coverage.  I am putting a note on my calendar now to check back in on Haiti in 6 months to see where things are and, if needed, consider making an additional donation at that time as well.

Be grateful today for clean water, food and shelter.  Have a wonderful weekend!

 Posted by on January 15, 2010 Ruly Survival Tagged with: , , , ,