The Science of Sustainability

Getting Started on Earthquake Preparedness

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I've talked about some of the science related to earthquakes here on KQED, things like shake-table studies and triggered creep and long earthquake cycles. And I've introduced some of the Bay Area's earthquake-producing faults like the San Andreas fault (here), the Hayward fault (here and here), the San Gregorio fault (here and here) and the Green Valley fault (here). I've showed you some ways to friend your local fault on your own, too.

But talking about all this cool fun science is circling around something that's more urgent: earthquakes are on their way, wherever you live in the Bay Area. And by preparing in advance for these earthquakes, you can save a whole lot of trouble for yourself, your family and your neighborhood.

I know all this; I've known it and written about it for years. But I shy away from the implications, like a lot of people, and as a result I haven't done much serious preparation. Truth be told, I'm kind of paralyzed at the prospect.

There are people out there who understand this resistance to action. They are being as creative as they know how in a sincere effort to draw us into doing the right things. What works?

Before I go there, I can tell you what has and hasn't worked for me:

1. The authorities tell us that a big, damaging earthquake is a certainty (over 99 percent) in the next 30 years in California. (My instinctive, self-justifying response is, "Fine, the Big One will be down south.")

2. They tell us that a big, damaging earthquake has 2-to-1 odds of happening in the Bay Area in the next 30 years. (Yeah, the epicenter will most likely be somewhere else and not this year either.)

3. They tell us that damaging shaking from that big quake will affect my area. The scenarios show that problems from the quake will affect my area's infrastructure, its traffic, its economy. (Well . . . that's hard to ignore.)

4. Recent, realistic simulations show that the experience will be scary and challenging under the best of circumstances. (Imagining this keeps me awake sometimes.)

5. You insure yourself against sudden death, illness and car crashes, don't you, so why not treat earthquakes the same way? (Um, O.K.)

Nevertheless, all that feels more like being harangued than being helped. Can earthquake preparation be easy instead? Or failing that, can it be simple?

Would you settle for orderly? That is definitely doable. Some things come before other things, and those sincere, creative people have sorted them out in a program called Seven Steps to Earthquake Safety. That turns the daunting mountain of earthquake preparedness into a path, with one step at a time. For instance, step 1 is "Secure it now!" That sounds like something with a beginning and an end; like something I could incorporate into my routine, one errand at a time, a small new item in the family-meeting agenda and the household budget. That sounds like something I can actually manage. And once it's done, step 2——but let's not get ahead of ourselves; that's how the paralysis started.

There is coaching available, too. At least I think of it that way. A creative team at TotallyUnprepared.com has a growing set of stories and demonstrations of the small, ordinary things that make up "securing it now." There's a lovely set of videos answering the simple question, Will it shake? The newest one tests a snowglobe collection. Of course it will shake; you know that; but it still helps to see it shake. The how-to section covers lots of specific problems, from securing refrigerators to getting earthquake insurance. You can even sign up for a regular email message from the Totally Unprepared team with tips and encouragement. Links from Totally Unprepared go to lots of good background info. It seems like just the place to bookmark and, dare I say it, make part of a New Year's resolution.

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Category: Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.