I was living not far from Northridge in Los Angeles when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck; when the 1994 Northridge quake shook Los Angeles, I was happily ensconsed in San Francisco’s Marina district. Remembering a childhood teacher’s mantra, “third one’s the charm!” I’m not counting on luck to escape the next one. I spoke with Marin County Fire Battalion Chief Bill Roberts and tectonic researcher David Lynch to get a lay of the land.
The surface of our planet is made up of rough-edged puzzle pieces, known as tectonic plates, which continually move around, sliding past and bumping into each other. A fault is the surface where the plates slip; most earthquakes occur when pent-up stress in rocks along fault lines is released. The energy that radiates when the rock breaks forms seismic waves that in turn make the ground tremble.
“A large fault is like a lightning bolt,” explains Roberts. “Fissures are smaller [offshoots] of the big fault.”
We, in Marin, live in the midst of several fault lines, the biggest player being the 810-mile San Andreas fault, which slices California in two from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border. The San Andreas, responsible for both the 1906 quake and Loma Prieta, runs through Marin and out to Point Reyes, then fractures off into Sonoma (find a more extensive view of the fault here). Other faults in our midst include Hayward and San Gregorio, which meets up with the San Andreas near the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are many myths about the San Andreas Fault, according to tectonic researcher David Lynch, who has worked with Caltech, U.C. Berkeley and the US Geological Survey and is currently focusing on the San Andreas. The biggest myth, says Lynch, is that the fault will one day crack causing California to slide into the sea. Lynch claims that can’t happen (and also says there is no such thing as earthquake weather).
Still, there is an 80 percent chance that we will experience a 6.0 or greater in the next 20 years, according to the USGS .
"The most important thing you can do is have a disaster plan and make sure everyone knows how to use it," emphasizes Roberts.
Have a family meeting.
The entire family needs to discuss and practice a disaster plan, whether for earthquake, floods or fire, says Roberts.
Set up a family communications network.
If family members are not together at home, use a contact person outside of the area – like Aunt Hattie in Michigan, says Roberts. “It’s easier to get a line going out into another state in the midst of a disaster.” Make sure everyone knows the contact and has their number. This person will act as a communications patch, explains Roberts, so you can tell your Aunt Hattie that you will be at the school playground and she calls your husband and kids and conveys that information.
Know your school’s plan.
How do you get your kids from school? If you can’t pick up your kids, who will do that? Designate that person ahead of time, says Roberts.
Make a GO pack.
This is for evacuation supplies that you can grab if you need to quickly leave the house or car, explains Roberts. It should consist of: photocopied important documents (insurance, driver’s license, birth certificates, passports); a little cash; flashlight; change of clothes; one or two quick, pre-packaged meals (not perishable) and always water (the standard recommendation is a gallon a day per person, but in a GO pack, have a couple of quarts that you can run out the door with). Keep the GO pack close to a door where it is easy to grab. Duplicate packs can be kept in the car or garage, says Roberts. In addition, keep a flashlight and sturdy shoes next to each person’s bed.
Make a long-term survival kit.
“My advice is everyone should be prepared to camp for two weeks,” says Lynch, whose own home was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Lynch reminds us that in the event of an earthquake roads, power and medical help will be unavailable to most people. “Water is the main concern," says Lynch, who, with more than 1,000 gallons of water on his own property, was able to help his neighbors.
Have at least seven days of supplies in your home that you can get your hands on, advises Roberts, and make sure everyone knows where it is. While you don’t know how an earthquake will impact your home, try storing your kit in a garage shelf that is near a corner – or even a space outside of your home in the yard or driveway. A long-term kit should contain: paper plates; utensils; non-perishable food like dry or canned goods (Roberts suggests rotating canned goods once a year); a gallon of water a day per person; a can opener; a camp stove and at least five gallons of propane to power it to cook or boil water; an alternative cooking source; bleach and a water bottle so you can purify; baby supplies; pet supplies; personal hygiene supplies; medication; sleeping bags or space blankets; a small tool kit; gloves; rope, tape, a shovel, flashlights and extra batteries; and a basic first aid kit. For a complete check list, visit Get Ready Marin.
Earthquake-proof your home, from the bottom up.
Make sure your house is securely anchored to its foundation, that appliances and heavy bookcases and cabinets are bolted to wall studs and that overhead light fixtures are securely braced. Check that heavy mirrors and pictures do not hang above places where people sit or sleep. Learn how to shut off your gas valves and have a wrench nearby. Find a checklist at the Red Cross.
Know what to do when the shaking starts.
Stage a family earthquake drill and be sure that even young children know what to do in the event of a quake, says Roberts.
Practice drop, cover and hold to protect yourself from falling debris. If you are in bed, stay there, curl up and protect your head with a pillow; stay away from windows to avoid being injured by shattered glass. Standing beneath a door frame is no longer advised, says Roberts, as doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house. Get under or near a sturdy piece of furniture to create a ‘survivable void space.'
Stay indoors until the shaking stops and you are sure it is safe to exit. If you must leave the building after the earthquake, use stairs rather than an elevator in case there are aftershocks, power outages or other damage. If you are outdoors when a quake hits, try to go to an open space like the middle of your yard, a field or park. Stay away from power lines and anything that can fall. See the Red Cross’s checklist for what to do during an earthquake.
In the words of David Abromovitz (a Marin teacher now living in Japan interviewed recently ): If you are on the west coast and you don't have earthquake-preparedness supplies somewhere in your house right now, “what the [heck] are you waiting for?”
Get prepared here
- Take a Get Ready Marin Training Course (they also have a 5th grade training course and programs for senior citizens).
- Get CERT trained through Marin County Fire Department
- Download Get Ready Marin’s Household Disaster Preparedness Manual
- Marin County Schools emergency preparedness training
- Get Ready Marin’s Emergency Supply Checklist
- Red Cross Emergency Preparedness Checklist
- San Andreas Fault.Org: Be Prepared
- Preparedness tips from the US Geological Survey