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Some Tips on Riding Out an Earthquake

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Occasionally, as I drive over or under a freeway overpass in California, I’ll be hit with a sense of dread. All I can think of are those horrifying images of the collapsed Cypress Freeway that trapped and killed 42 people in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Certainly I’m not alone in worrying about what could happen to drivers caught on the freeway when the next big quake strikes.

Unfortunately, we’re pretty much at the mercy of nature. There are no warnings. One minute we’re cruising down the freeway, the next thing the earth shakes, and that concrete marvel of a road collapses as it did a decade ago in Northern California.

But there are situations during a quake when drivers may well be in a position to avoid tragedy. So in the wake of the recent 7.1 Hector Mine temblor, here are some tips from the experts that could help protect motorists and their passengers, and possibly save their lives.

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Firefighter Mitch McKnight, an instructor with the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s disaster prevention unit, advises drivers who are caught on a freeway when a quake strikes to “slow down, go to the right side of the road and beware of any overhead hazards.”

“Don’t stop on or under an overpass,” he says, “and stay away from high-rise buildings, large trees or power lines.”

Drivers who are already on an overpass should try to get off as quickly as possible.

“That doesn’t mean throw the car into high gear. It means proceed with caution to a safe location,” he says.

Sounds like common sense. But whether it will work will depend on the circumstances.

“If it’s rush hour, for example, and you’ve got 600 cars behind you, it can be a real mess,” McKnight says.

If possible, he says, we should avoid driving immediately after an earthquake because of the risk of aftershocks and road damage.

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“A lot of people like to take their car and go sightseeing. But it’s a foolish thing to do because you don’t know when an aftershock could come,” McKnight says.

Roadway and structural damage, no matter how minor it may appear, can pose a serious danger right after a quake, cautions Tim Maley, a public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol. It is best to wait until the roadway can be examined by a CHP officer or state Department of Transportation worker.

“At first blush, what might seem to be a minor crack in the road or a separation of two bridge joints could have significantly weakened the structure to the point where if you [add] the weight of an automobile or a truck, it could cause it to fail,” Maley says.

Los Angeles Police Officer Clarence Wayne Dean lost his life shortly after the Northridge quake of 1994 when his motorcycle plunged off a collapsed interchange of the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways.

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Dean was rushing from his home in Lancaster to report for emergency duty when he failed to see the severed roadway in the predawn light.

Olga Robles Uribe died in an automobile accident right after the earthquake. Worried about her 10-month-old son, she left work to pick him up. The car in which she was a passenger hit a fissure in the road caused by the quake and flipped over twice on San Fernando Road in Sylmar. The 26-year-old mother was dead at the scene.

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The CHP does not compile statistics on earthquake-related vehicle deaths and injuries in California. But the Western Insurance Information Service, an education and research group, reports that the Northridge quake alone generated 33,249 personal and commercial automobile insurance claims for a total loss of $58.2 million.

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The claims, says spokeswoman Stephanie Macadaan, covered incidents ranging from roadway accidents to vehicle damage caused by falling trees, buildings and debris.

Macadaan urges motorists who are caught in an earthquake to stay inside their vehicles until the shaking stops and then listen to the radio for updates on road conditions, gas leaks or other possible hazards.

Motorists should also be prepared by carrying emergency supplies in the car, firefighter McKnight advises, suggesting such items as a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a portable radio, batteries, a change of clothes, comfortable walking shoes and a supply of water and food.

Comfortable shoes are important, he says, “because if the roads are damaged and you can’t get through in a car, you are probably going to end up walking to shelter.” The radio could prove to be the driver’s only link to post-quake news updates.

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McKnight also reminds people who use prescription medication to pack an extra supply in their emergency car kits.

In addition, he advises drivers to keep emergency supplies at work “because, if the roads are impassable, you may have to stay at your office for a few days.”

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The bottom line is it’s necessary for “folks to take responsibility for themselves and not just rely on the government to be there for them” should a big quake occur, the CHP’s Maley says.

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If we get hit with a magnitude 8 or stronger quake, he says, “you’re going to have mass devastation, and the emergency preparedness network is going to be taxed.”

“People are going to have to be self-sufficient until law enforcement and emergency help can get there.”

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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