I’m a native Californian, born and raised in earthquake country.
I remember the rolling that thrust me awake in my childhood bed during the 1971 Sylmar quake. As a reporter, I covered the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge temblor, writing about collapsed buildings, devastated lives and efforts to recover.
And, of course, there have been countless others jolts, the sort that I’ve come to expect and accept as a familiar, though vexatious, consequence of living in a place of astonishing natural beauty forged in large measure by all that seismic activity.
But my long experience with earthquakes has also led me to become a bit blasé about massive amounts of energy released by the movement of tectonic plates. Familiarity might breed contempt, as the saying goes, but when it comes to earthquakes, in my case it sometimes also breeds apathy.
This isn’t because I’m unafraid. Indeed, earthquakes scare me most because they are cruelly arbitrary. We have no warning as to when or where they will strike, so my detachment is likely due more to paralysis than a lack of respect for the seriousness of the threat.
Recognizing my deficient mindset after the latest major quakes hit Southern California — the 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude shakers near Ridgecrest on July 4 and 5 — I headed over to the fire administration offices at the Newport Beach Civic Center. There I met with life safety specialist and disaster-preparedness authority Matt Brisbois, an engaging and passionate professional who’s been doing this type of work since 2005.
I first met Brisbois 10 years ago during a bout of conscientiousness, when I enrolled in Newport’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program, which he continues to run. The CERT classes, which are free to residents — and which are held in communities throughout the nation — are designed to teach nonprofessionals how to prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters.
Brisbois, as I had hoped, politely and expertly disabused me of my what’s-the-point fatalism.
No, we don’t know where we will be when a major earthquake strikes and that unpredictability can lead to foolish decisions.
“It’s human nature,” Brisbois acknowledged. “Most people freeze or run” when the shaking starts, though he dryly notes that “you can’t outrun an earthquake.”
The best strategy in most cases is to stay put and make the best of where you are.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your circumstances.
When indoors, the old “duck, cover and hold” method taught in schools is still the best response, Brisbois said. That is, drop down under or next to a sturdy object and away from windows, chimneys, televisions or other hazards; cover your head and hold on until the shaking ceases. Watch out for glass shards and objects that might be propelled across a room, as you’re more likely to be injured from those than from a building collapse.
If outdoors, situational awareness is key. If you’re in a clear area, stay there, but try to move away from anything that might fall on you, such as trees, power lines and building exteriors. If you’re driving, pull over and stay inside the vehicle, again avoiding spots where you’d be vulnerable to falling objects.
Brisbois’ focus is largely on the critical before and after scenarios.
There are the recommended steps to take beforehand, including making a family plan for meeting and checking on each other; learning how to turn off the gas; stocking food and water with decades-long shelf lives; strapping down major appliances; digitally storing copies of important documents and photos; and having first-aid supplies, flashlights, batteries or solar-powered lights readily available.
The hours immediately following a big quake are crucial.
“The first 72 hours to a week, the government is going to be overwhelmed,” Brisbois said. “The city of Newport Beach is begging you take care of yourself.”
In Newport, as in most cities, standard protocol is for first responders (Brisbois prefers the term “professional responders”) to conduct a “windshield survey,” during which they assess damage and prioritize the allocation of resources in order to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Obviously, structural collapses and life-threatening emergencies would be handled first.
“The first 72 hours to a week, the government is going to be overwhelmed. The city of Newport Beach is begging you take care of yourself.”
Residents can assist tremendously in this process by checking on their neighbors and identifying problems, so that when emergency workers do arrive they can be quickly apprised of conditions in the immediate area. It’s best not to call 911 unless the situation is truly urgent, as the system will likely be log-jammed.
One of the most helpful steps, Brisbois has learned, is for neighbors to get organized and learn how to work together to improve preparedness and respond quickly and effectively when disaster strikes.
I’m done with apathy, for good this time. I’ve been reviewing my CERT materials, ordering supplies and making sure that everyone in my family knows what to do too.
I encourage everyone to sign up for CERT classes — they are also offered in Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and many other cities in Orange County — but if you can’t attend at least educate yourself about recommended earthquake procedures and basic first aid.
There’s nothing we can do to stop the earth from shaking. But, as Brisbois can attest, there’s actually much that we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones as safe as possible when it happens.