By Rupa Dev, New America Media
MENLO PARK, Calif.—If an earthquake strikes tomorrow, how would California residents fare?
Ninety percent of homes aren’t earthquake insured, which means an overwhelming majority of California homeowners would have to pay all earthquake-related household damages.
Additionally, only 40 percent of Californians have made a family disaster plan in case of an earthquake, according to a recent survey conducted by the UCLA School of Public Health.
Experts say there’s a 62 percent chance that a strong earthquake will hit the Bay Area over the next 30 years. “The Bay Area lives in the shadow of the infamous San Andreas fault line, and we will certainly have another earthquake that we will need to be prepared for,” Dr. John Parrish, a geologist for the California Geological Survey, told reporters at a news briefing for ethnic media in Menlo Park on Monday.
The timing of briefing—one day after the 21st anniversary of the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area in 1989, killing 63 people—highlighted the urgency of the issue. “We need to do everything we can to be more prepared than we were during Loma Prieta,” said Harold Brooks, CEO of the American Red Cross-Bay Area Chapter.
Brooks said that while the Red Cross has helped 1 million Bay Area residents become earthquake-ready over the past four years, those numbers aren’t sufficient. “We live in a transient community, and we need to make sure young people who growing up are informed and prepared.”
Family Disaster Plan a Must
Several experts discussed the importance of creating a family disaster plan. “A lot of people aren’t sure about how to [do it],” acknowledged Kelly Huston of the California Emergency Management Agency, but it needn’t be complicated, he stressed. In preparation for an earthquake, family members should know the answers to basic questions such as:
• Where are earthquake-readiness kits stored?
• Where will family members meet after the earth stops shaking?
• If unable to return to their home, where can they count on staying for three days to two weeks?
The first 72 hours after a major earthquake are critical, Huston said. Electricity, gas, water, and telephone lines may not work, and disaster workers may not be able to reach them quickly. Residents must be prepared to fend for themselves.
Stores such as Target carry convenient earthquake-readiness kits that include such necessities as water packets, emergency food, first aid items, hand warmers, candles, flashlight with batteries, and rain ponchos, Huston said.
Huston recommended including a few additional items, such as an extra set of house and car keys in case doors are jammed, a wrench to turn off the gas, and a can opener.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” Huston noted. “Just go around your house, pick up as many these items that you have, and throw them all together in a kit.”
The UCLA survey also found that only 40 percent of Californians have stored the recommended three gallons of water per family member. Huston stressed the importance of not skimping on water as part of the family’s emergency kit.
Disaster kits should be kept in a garage, near a back door, and in the car for easy access, he said.
Drop, Cover, and Hold On
For years, Californians have been advised to seek safety under a sturdy table if an earthquake strikes. Many people believe that a doorway is the next best thing, but Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief for the Menlo Park Protection District, dispelled this notion.
Instead, he recommended that people position themselves “near something with [substantial] mass, like an outside wall or heavy furniture, so whatever falls won’t hit your body.”
He said that when shaking starts, people should drop, cover, and hold on to something sturdy, like the leg of a table, to protect the neck, head, and sides of the body. (To practice the drill, millions of people will participate in the annual California ShakeOut this Thursday, Oct. 21, at 10:21 a.m.)
Schapelhouman advised attendees to join a community response team in their neighborhoods.
Insure and Retrofit
Experts at the briefing, which was sponsored by the California Earthquake Authority and New America Media, also urged residents to consider the safety of their homes and belongings before disaster strikes. To make old homes safer, property owners should ask themselves the following questions:
• Is the water heater strapped down?
• Is the house bolted to the foundation?
• Do the cripple walls have OSB sheathing?
• Is the home on a steep hill or split-level?
If the answer of any of these questions is yes, additional precautions may be needed, said Kelly Cobeen, vice president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California. But she stressed that it is possible to make old homes earthquake resilient by retrofitting the parts that are most vulnerable to damage.
The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) earthquake-safety website can help property owners understand construction of their homes, experts said.
Additionally, a team of firefighters used a mobile earthquake simulator to demonstrate the impact of a 7.6 magnitude quake. The van, stationed at the Baylands Structural Collapse Training Center in Menlo Park, shook wildly, and books and belongings scattered to the ground. Easy ways to secure belongings include earthquake putty for small breakable objects and sturdy straps that can prevent a flat-screen television or bookcase from crashing down.
California Earthquake Authority, a nonprofit that aims to provide affordable earthquake insurance to all California renters and homeowners, has insured 800,000 properties. Still, 90 percent of homes in the state are uninsured for quake damage, said CEO Glenn Pomeroy.
“The home is a major asset, and to go through life hoping an earthquake won’t do any damage is a risk,” Pomeroy said. “It’s important for all of us to ask ourselves: is my home something I wish to protect, and do I have plans in place to give me the opportunity to rebuild if something happens?”
Homeowners can use a tool on the CEA website to find out how much an earthquake insurance policy would cost for their home.
NAM’s executive director, Sandy Close, urged Californians to make earthquake readiness a priority now, despite the many other pressures residents may be feeling.
During a time of economic stress, it’s very easy to not remember that the earth shakes,” Close said. “We must only to remember the extraordinary way nature can capture us and make us so vulnerable unless we prepare.”