Earthquake Safety Messaging: Stand up. Speak up. Spread the Word.

Drop, Cover, and Hold On is the official message to families in earthquake-prone areas because we do not want people outside when building exteriors, roads, or even bridges may collapse.

And the recent magnitude 6.0 earthquake that rocked California’s Napa Valley is a sobering example of why. Experts agree that if the Napa Valley quake had struck at 3:20 p.m. instead of 3:20 a.m. that people who are typically dining, shopping, and walking near the historic downtown buildings would have been injured and likely killed. Even so, more than 200 people were injured in Napa, including a young boy who was struck by debris from a collapsing chimney.

When an earthquake occurs, we in the disaster safety movement know that we cannot drop out of sight, take cover, and hold on to the hope that the current crisis, or next one, will pass without severe damage or injuries.

It’s exactly at those times—the days and weeks immediately following such events—that we stand up, speak up, and spread the word.

We do a good job of pushing the safety message out before the earthquakes strike. For example, the Great ShakeOut drills reach millions across the globe annually. But, it is essential that we also quickly deliver messages across the U.S. immediately after an event because that is when we have the public’s rapt attention.

It’s human nature that when we associate any message with a real event, we listen better, learn more, and remember. That is why we leverage the “teaching moment” after a disaster by delivering messages about how to be safe and resilient.

I was gratified to see how many news organizations shared the information in the advisory that we sent out immediately after the Napa Valley earthquake. We got the attention of people in states outside of California by highlighting the U.S. Geological Survey maps that indicate 42 of 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing a significant seismic event during a 50-year span, which also happens to be the lifetime of a typical building.

It is tempting to remain quiet in the aftermath of any disaster out of respect for those affected, but if we did, we’d lose one of the best opportunities to motivate the public to take action. In earthquake zones, we want people to question how their building was constructed. Do they enjoy the safety of modern, model building codes and construction practices, or should they start planning to retrofit? Moreover, once they determine if the structure is sound, we want them to undertake nonstructural mitigation through simple, inexpensive measures like securing ceiling fans, chandeliers, bookcases, heavy objects, and breakables.

And consistent with the common occurrence of post-quake fires like we saw in Napa Valley, we want business owners and residents to learn where and how to shut off their natural gas supply.

When the earthquake fades from the headlines, many residents, even if physically and emotionally shaken, tend to think that it won’t happen again. They go about their lives, as if they were somehow made safer by the fact that a rare disaster event had just occurred.

That may be a natural reaction and understandable coping mechanism. And sometimes they are right. But sometimes, unfortunately, they are wrong. That’s why we must stand up, speak up, and spread the word until everyone understands why.

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