September 20, 2017

Get Prepared Now

Posted by Austin Elliott

The scenes of violent shaking in dense urban Mexico City from the new Sept 19 earthquake are genuinely horrifying. Buildings twist, collide, crumble, buckle, and collapse before your eyes like some scene out of a movie; trees thrash wildly as boatmen on the Xochimilco Canals struggle for balance on a river being thrown violently from its banks;

inside, furniture flies across rooms and ceilings cave in while desperate residents and officeworkers cling and pray for dear life. It is a struggle to stomach the footage–most of it had me breathless last night, and it makes my old posts on videos of strong ground motion and shaking buildings look rather naive. However, these wild videos present images that anyone who lives in earthquake country ought to become familiar with, so follow the hyperlinks in the sentence above to realize what you may one day face. Because we cannot precisely predict the timing of future earthquakes, populations in earthquake-prone areas must universally be aware that a large destructive earthquake can occur at any moment, and will occur without warning–or if you’re in a fortunate country with modern Earthquake Early Warning, at most a few seconds’ notice.

The coincidence of this Mexico City event occurring both on the anniversary of Mexico’s most infamous Great earthquake and a mere three hours after a major earthquake drill (as well as just two weeks after the largest earthquake in the nation’s history off the Oaxaca coast) gives the impression of a country particularly beleaguered by deliberate seismic antagonism. But this violence and destruction attends any Big One that will inevitably befall every earthquake-prone community around the globe, and the scenes from Mexico underscore the ways you can prepare in order to conquer the seismic beast and avert potential disasters like savvy citizens of Earthquake Country.

We can never know with minute precision when the next earthquake will be, but we do know where future earthquakes will occur. Any place on Earth may be susceptible to snaps within the brittle crust producing the rare, damaging earthquake, but there are clear swaths of the planet that face frequent recurrence of large, destructive temblors. Anywhere broadly around the “ring of fire” or within the vast Alpine-Himalayan mountain belt counts as earthquake country. The whole west coast of the Americas, southwest Pacific islands, Indonesia, Japan, northeast China, eastern Russia, and anywhere along a wide line between Italy and Vietnam experiences active tectonic deformation and attendant earthquakes.

Much of the Earth’s population lives in these zones where earthquakes recur. Yet you needn’t and oughtn’t live your life in anxious fear, because in the scheme of personal risks your odds of death by earthquake are exceedingly low compared with much more mundane activities you opt to do all the time. In any given place, these events may be rare–skipping several generations or centuries in between–and in all but a handful of extreme cases, the vast majority of a population survives an earthquake. Invert the casualty counts you hear on the news to think of a city’s “life toll” after an event. We can think of it this way because in many earthquake-prone regions around the world, governments have taken steps to protect their populations through strong and strongly enforced building codes. Importantly, there are also things individuals and communities can, should, and must do as well to reduce their odds of an earthquake being fatal. Apart from protecting life, your aim should be to make recovery from a few seconds of unbelievably violent ground-shaking as smooth, easy, and comfortable as possible. With the onslaught of disasters this summer, there’s little excuse not to think about how you would prepare to cope, and some of the dramatic footage from CDMX serves as a reminder why.

Look at the people at the end of this video.

The earthquake was sudden, shocking, and remarkably violent. They didn’t know their day would abruptly take this turn–nor will you. They’re stunned, and a lot of the first reactions one might expect to take–call loved ones, drive home, run inside to save the items you abandoned–will be unavailable. Utilities may have failed, the cell network may be jammed or crippled, and roads may become impassable, if not because of collapse, then likely because of debris, evacuated crowds, or others trying to get around. The array of situations you may be in when an earthquake strikes is simply the full array of situations you go through in a day during your life. Naturally, the needs and options available will be different for each, and you can’t possibly have a concrete plan no matter what, but it’s important to consider your plan–what you will do before, during, then minutes, hours, days after–for an earthquake in the two most common environments you occupy: home and work/school.

In the immediate aftermath of a big quake, you and your neighbors become the first responders. Even without police, ambulances, and fire departments overwhelmed or blocked, you will be the first people on the scene wherever you are.

A few basic first-aid supplies somewhere at hand never hurt either. Keep a battery pack charged and with you for your mobile phone. Every one of you will need shoes to avoid the ubiquitous broken glass (or shards of anything fallen). If the earthquake happens at night (half of them do) you’ll want a flashlight (likely you have this on your phone). Heavy furniture that can topple (you saw this all over in Mexico City) should be bolted to the wall, framed objects mounted securely/away from your bed & seating areas, and delicate objects secured before anything shakes… i.e., now.

And here’s a clever idea. What if the quake happens while it’s raining?

These things are simple, but the continuing list of items to potentially assemble for an emergency can become daunting. @MikaMckinnon has a brilliant strategy that gets you prepared, prepares the people who will be there to save you, and which pools the resources and craftiness of a collection of folks who may help remind each other of important post-disaster needs. Plus it’s great fun to boot–read through this fabulous thread:

I couldn’t possibly assemble all the wealth of information the internet contains about how to prepare yourself and your home for an inevitable earthquake, especially since many of these resources may be regional or community-specific. However, I hope the clever ideas Mika tweet-stormed help you feel a bit more empowered after watching shaking buildings terrorize an earthquake weary populace. If you’re feeling fear watching those videos, you’re already putting yourself in the place of the people in Mexico City; you may as well take the extra step and think, “what would I do now?” Use this opportunity confront the next earthquake like confident citizens of Earthquake Country.