When earthquakes hit, our instincts can often get us in trouble. The first annual Great Washington ShakeOut is trying to fix that.
During earthquakes, instinct tells us to look out the window in curiosity, run out of the building or pick up the phone and share the news with everyone.
These actions put us and others at unnecessary risk. Understanding why requires knowing a bit about what actually harms us in earthquakes.
Over the last century, U.S. deaths from earthquakes have plummeted, due to our growing knowledge about fault lines and building behavior coupled with our willingness to strengthen building codes and land-use plans. Thankfully, earthquakes here do not cause the widespread and deadly building collapses they did a century ago or in less-developed nations such as Haiti. But, this does not mean we are safe.
Today, in Western Washington, people are much more likely to be injured than killed in earthquakes. People are often injured as they attempt to move around while the ground shakes. Others are cut by falling bricks or glass as they exit buildings during an earthquake. Still others are struck by falling light fixtures, false ceilings and the room's contents as they gaze about in curiosity. Often, people seek medical help for these injuries.
Non-critical injuries clogged emergency rooms after the 1994 Californian Northridge earthquake. The number of emergency room visits jumped threefold the day of the quake, with patients seeking treatment for lacerations and contusions. When hospitals become overloaded, medical staff may never see those most in need of treatment.
Telephone networks can become clogged as well, as occurred in our own smaller Nisqually earthquake in 2001. When people excitedly call friends and family, they block lines for those needing to reach 911 operators.
With the distinct possibility of our instincts betraying us, the need for earthquake drills is clear.
On Oct. 18, Washington State is holding its first annual ShakeOut earthquake drill. At 10:18 a.m., millions of school children, workers and householders across Washington and other west coast states will imagine being rattled by an earthquake. They will then practice how to protect themselves by dropping to the ground, covering their heads and holding on if something sturdy is nearby.
Californians have been holding ShakeOut drills for the last five years. There, many participants realized they needed to rethink their earthquake safety plans.
Office workers realized they needed to clean out the clutter under their desks so they have a place to take refuge. Parents realized the glass mirrors and unsecured bookshelves in their children's rooms could injure or trap their children. Students realized they needed to know what to do if the earthquake hit while they were in gyms, dance studios, stadiums or other places without a desk under which they could duck.
Over the last five years, ShakeOut participants have also used the event to practice their emergency response plans. They have carried out mock drills to practice finding and caring for injured people and providing basic shelter during an earthquake's immediate aftermath.
There too, lessons have emerged.
Schools have revised student release procedures, realizing a plan that takes hours, even days, to reunite every child with a loved one is not good enough. University students have pushed their universities to develop robust educational continuity plans that go beyond simply sending students home mid-quarter. These improvements have come through thoughtful discussion, reducing the need for ad hoc decision making during the chaos of an actual event.
This year, after experiencing some of the most tragic earthquakes in recent times, the countries of Japan and New Zealand are joining the ShakeOut movement. We need not wait until a devastating event here to promote earthquake safety here in Washington.
Washingtonians would do well to encourage widespread participation in our first ShakeOut this October. Households, businesses and organizations can register at ShakeOut.org where they will find many tips for being safer in earthquake country.
In crises, research shows we do what we have practiced. If we have not practiced, and practiced regularly, we run the risk of relying only on our often-faulty instincts. Drills such as the Great Washington ShakeOut can make sure our actions keep us all safe during earthquakes.
Rebekah Green is associate director of Western Washington University's Resilience Institute. She has researched the ShakeOut drill in other states for the last five years.