Thursday, October 1, 2009

When The Earth Shakes

Every day, it's something. Today it's a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia that has reportedly killed several hundred (early toll) and trapped thousands. It'll take a while to know the final scope of the devastation. But this gives us a reason to take a closer look at surviving an earthquake.

Step back and take a look at what happens. The earth trembles for a very brief time. It isn't that the ground shakes for hours or days — no, all the rumble and tumble is over in a matter of seconds, or in extremely long-duration quakes, in a couple of minutes. Then the dust settles and everything is quiet again. The ground goes back to sleep.

The quake itself is over so fast, and the shaking so relatively minor (it isn't as if we're seeing mountain ranges thrust up thousands of feet these days, as in the formative stages of the planet) that if it weren't for people, the shaking ground would be no big deal. If the temblor struck an unpopulated expanse of prairie, for example, the level of disaster would be counted as exactly zilch.

The real problem is that quakes sometimes strike populated zones and the infrastructure that people depend on is damaged. Buildings collapse, sanitation and water systems rupture, highways are broken up, electrical and natural gas systems get torn apart, hazardous substances are spilled into the atmosphere and water supply.

In the aftermath of a quake, people become buried beneath rubble, injured by shattered glass and sharp metal, burned in fires, electrocuted. With the failure of the power grid, medical patients die. Transportation comes to a halt, resulting in the disruption of services and shortage of commodities (food, medicine, etc.). Communication lines cease to function. Emergency services (ambulance, fire, police, hospitals) are overwhelmed. Vast numbers of people are suddenly thrust out on the street with no place to go for shelter, no place to get food or clean drinking water, no one to protect them or comfort them. Often, they have no idea what happened to their loved ones — whether they are alive or dead. The physical, emotional and psychological impact on earthquake survivors is enormous.

Even the most brilliant scientists have not yet been able to accurately forecast an earthquake. All they can predicts is something like, "Sometime in the next 50 years, the BIG ONE will hit." But they can't say, "Get outside and move away from buildings now, because in 15 minutes, the BIG ONE is going to hit." So what good does that do you?

The best you can do is know how to prepare in advance, formulate a plan of actions to take during a quake, and then know what to do in the aftermath. To start this discussion, here are some bullet points about making your home as earthquake-proof as possible:
  • Fasten large items of furniture (hutch, entertainment center, bookshelf unit, grandfather clock etc.) to the wall so they can't be knocked over. 
  • Fasten the water heater to the wall by using a metal strap bolted to wall studs.
  • Fasten the refrigerator to the wall.
  • Position framed pictures and mirrors away from the bed, couch, chairs so they won't fall on people during a quake.
  • Store heavy and breakable items low on shelves and behind closed cabinet doors. 
  • Secure cabinet doors with positive latching mechanisms.
  • In the garage, store toxic substances (weed killer, etc.) on bottom self in a closed cabinet so children can't get to them. 
  • Know where and how to turn off the natural gas supply to your house. 
  • Keep sturdy shoes near your bed so you can put them on and get out of a shattered house without injury to your feet.
  • Have your Grab and Go kit easily available, even in the event the house collapses.

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