There are two things people always ask me about California: is the traffic really that bad and, have you ever been in an earthquake? Well, as Robin Williams once put it, “I live on God’s etch-a-sketch.” 

Minor earthquakes are just a part of living along the San Andreas fault. I sleep through most of them. But my wake up call came a few weeks ago when a series of large earthquakes hit the small town of Ridgecrest.

When the second and largest earthquake hit, 7.1 in magnitude, I was working at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. I watched in awe as the entire park shut down. Panicked guests flooded our restaurant, many of whom had never experienced an earthquake in their lives. I got a taste of that same fear on July 11 at 6:11 AM when I woke up in Ridgecrest to a 4.9 magnitude quake right in the center of town.

In 2019 alone, the United States Geological Survey has recorded over 90 significant earthquakes in the world, a third of them occurring in the United States. An earthquake can come at any time, so it is best to be prepared. Here is some information and a few safety tips, courtesy of your resident Californian, for dealing with earthquakes.

What is an earthquake?

An earthquake is a geological phenomenon. The Earth’s crust is made up of moving tectonic plates. Plates’ movement against each other creates friction and causes stress to build up. Eventually, the stress overcomes the friction and the plates slip at the fault, releasing energy in the form of seismic waves. That shaking is what we call an earthquake.

Where can I hide in an earthquake?

Always drop to the floor and seek cover. If you are in a class, duck under a desk or table. If you are indoors, get under a strong, load-bearing doorway. If you are in bed, stay put and cover your head with a pillow. If there is no safe place to seek cover, use your arms to shield your head and face and crouch down in a corner against the wall away from potential hazards. Injuries to your arms can be healed; a head injury can be fatal.

What hazards should I avoid in an earthquake?

Get away from the windows and glass fixtures, as those are the first to break in an earthquake. Light fixtures are also dangerous as they can fall in a quake. If you need to seek shelter against a wall, make sure there is nothing nearby that could fall. Falling debris like books, picture frames or clocks can be dangerous. Keep towards the center of the building as outside walls are the most susceptible to damage. Also, avoid electrical and gas lines. Fires are one of the most common post-quake hazards.

Shouldn’t I evacuate the building?

Do not run outside during an earthquake. According to the Red Cross, “most injuries during earthquakes occur because of people moving around, falling and suffering sprains, fractures and head injuries.” Do not panic and exit if a fire alarm system goes off; they can be triggered even when there is no fire. Unless you can actually detect a gas leak, it is far safer to drop and seek cover during an earthquake. Once the shaking stops, then you can safely exit the building. If you are in a high rise building, take the stairs. Elevators can be compromised by aftershocks or power outages.

What if I am already outside?

If you are already outside during an earthquake, find a clear spot and drop to the ground until the quaking stops. Be sure to avoid power lines, street lights, buildings and trees as they can fall in a strong enough earthquake. If you are in a car, pull over to a clear spot and avoid bridges, freeway overpasses and ramps if possible.

The earthquake has passed. Now what?

Aftershocks are a common occurrence, especially after larger earthquakes. As much as you might want to re-shelve your books and re-hang pictures, hold off for a bit. If you have anything valuable that you want to protect, find a safe place on the ground to hide it, such as under a bed or in a box in the closet or garage. This is the time to minimize any and all hazards.

Can earthquakes be predicted?

One of the common trends I noticed on social media, of course, came from Facebook: “The Big One is coming within the next 24 hours, get your family and friends out now!” In reality, there is no accurate method to predict the location or strength of an earthquake. Earthquakes are random geologic events. Geologists have tried and failed to predict quakes over time. Even prediction attempts for aftershocks are unreliable; there could be anywhere from seconds to weeks between quakes. There is such a thing as fore-shocks but they are also unreliable or could just be a small scale earthquake.

Does this mean I should always be on guard?

Not necessarily, a perceivable earthquake is relatively infrequent. A major earthquake is even more uncommon. There is no need to spend your time bracing for impact every second of the day. Still, there are plenty of precautions that can be taken. Make sure you know emergency exit locations. It never hurts to run through some safety drills so that when the time comes, it will be second nature. Quick reflexes can be lifesavers.

What is the Big One?

There is plenty of fascination surrounding the so-called "Big One," a massive earthquake predicted to hit California. It has become so feared, there are blockbuster disaster movies about it starring Dwayne Johnson (because if anyone can protect us from geology, it’s “The Rock”). There is no predicting just how big it will be or how much damage it will cause. For all we know, it could come tomorrow or in several thousand years. So little is actually known, there is no sensible reason to pack a bag and run screaming for the East Coast. It does no good to worry about some crazy earthquake of Hollywood proportions.

Earthquakes can be frightening. They are unpredictable and able to cause immense destruction under the right circumstances. However, it isn’t hard to protect yourself from the average quake. Just remember these guidelines and keep a clear head. Even when the ground is shaking, it is important to remain steady.

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