Friday, October 22, 2010

This Was Only a Drill


Yesterday was the Great California ShakeOut. Now, just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t heard of this, it was the largest earthquake drill in the history of the United States. (Okay, I wouldn’t actually fault you for not having heard of it. I hadn’t myself until Wednesday.)

Ideally, I’d have posted this report yesterday—the topic may already be getting stale—and now I’m in poor condition to write it. I just got back from the International Potluck at my kids’ school, where I ate two kinds of egg roll (greasy and extra greasy, both good), three versions of lasagne, three more uncategorized pastas, some weird silvery noodles, shepherd’s pie, potstickers, fried rice, an uncategorized crock-pot rice thing, salad, two kinds of chow mien, some weird potato thing, and a bunch of other stuff. Whatever loss leaders my kids didn’t like I ended up with—“Here, I’m going to share with you,” Alexa announced, shoveling the entire contents of her plate right onto mine, all of it sifting together in the process. (And we call it … The Aristocrats!)

After all that food, and all that used food, and then the desserts, and all those food nationalities not getting along so well in my belly, I’d rather be curled up in the fetal position right now, groaning, but instead I’m going to race you through the Great ShakeOut. Such is my commitment to the enlightenment of my readers (if any).

What is the Great ShakeOut?

At 10:21 a.m. on Wednesday (10/21, get it?), almost 8 million Californians responded to a warning noise of one sort or another and crawled under a desk and held on. About a minute later, everything got back to normal. This isn’t a complete description of the event, as I’m sadly no expert. For one thing, that number is probably a bit low; my wife and I, for example, were not among the 7.9 million participants counted so far. I never registered, though apparently I still can.

Almost nobody I know has talked about the ShakeOut, other than someone in my book club who actually missed the drill itself because she was busy preparing refreshments for the event. Had there been an actual earthquake, I’m sure she’d have dropped what she was doing. At least she was a part of things.

The point of the ShakeOut is to help people understand, and practice, the proper response to an earthquake. The official instruction is to drop to the floor, crawl under something sturdy like a table or desk, cover your head, and hold on to something. For more detailed instructions, click here.

What not to do in an earthquake

I feel a need to point out here that the “drop, cover, and hold on” approach to surviving an earthquake has been challenged in recent years by a competing approach called the “triangle of life.” Five years ago, a friend sent me (and a bunch of other people) an e-mail titled “Post-research EARTHQUAKE SURVIVAL TIP.” It was a forward of a forward of a forward of a message from Doug Copp, the “Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI), the world's most experienced rescue team.” (I forwarded it to a bunch of people myself, I think.)

Copp wrote, “In 1996 we made a film which proved my survival methodology to be correct. The Turkish Federal Government, City of Istanbul, University of Istanbul Case Productions and ARTI cooperated to film this practical, scientific test. We collapsed a school and a home with 20 mannequins inside. Ten mannequins did ‘duck and cover,’ and ten mannequins I used in my ‘triangle of life’ survival method. After the simulated earthquake collapse we crawled through the rubble and entered the building to film and document the results. The film … showed there would have been zero percent survival for those doing duck and cover. There would likely have been 100 percent survivability for people using my method of the ‘triangle of life.’”

For the last five years I’ve held it in my head that the triangle of life technique was the way to go. Only in reading about the Great ShakeUp did I learn that this technique, and Copp himself, have been thoroughly discredited. His rescue team is far from “the world’s most experienced,” and is in fact a rinky-dink volunteer group. Copp has been accused of bilking the U.S. government out of about $650,000 in compensation for false injury claims stemming from his rescue work at the World Trade Center after 9/11. His “triangle of life” techniques have been dismissed by the American Red Cross, assuming this statement is authentic. (Needless to say, I’m trying to be more skeptical these days.) Other refutations of Copp’s nonsense are here and here. Perhaps the best report on this topic, with great instructions about what—and what not—to do during an earthquake, is here.

My earthquake experience

I spent my formative years in Colorado, where there were no earthquakes; people worried about tornadoes, or didn’t. (I never did, being a dumb kid and also associating tornadoes with the Wizard of Oz, which meant relegating them to the realm of kids’ fantasy.) When I moved to California, I actually hoped to go through some earthquakes, as a way to earn some cred as a Californian. (I also learned the large regional vocabulary comprising ways of saying “dude,” and adopted the word “gnarly”—ironically at first, and now completely straight.)

In 1989, I was a student at UC Santa Barbara when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. We didn’t feel it down south, but my roommate was on the phone all day checking on his Bay Area friends and relatives. That’s about all I knew about it, other than having a vague idea that something bad happened to the Bay Bridge. (Part of the upper deck fell down.)

In my last two years of college I shared a top-floor apartment with some other guys. I ignorantly hung this giant framed picture right above my bed. One of my roommates, a Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering, explained to me why that was a bad idea. But the more he talked, the more convinced I became that the picture looked just right in that location, and I decided to leave it. Some months later, I experienced my first earthquake in that very bed.

My first thought, of course, was how stupid I was to have hung that picture there. My second thought (as I covered my head and braced myself) was that at least it was a cheap, lightweight frame with clear plastic instead of glass. But then the room really got to swaying; my third thought was that the world was ending. It’s difficult to describe what a mind-blowing experience it is to realize that the Earth, which you thought was completely stable and rigid, is actually almost fluid. My room felt like a small boat being tossed about in the waves. Amazingly, the picture didn’t fall, so I left it there for another year or so (before realizing it was really ugly and taking it down on aesthetic grounds).

Getting practical

At my last apartment, in San Francisco, I gave a little more thought to the actual possibility of being hurt or killed in an earthquake. (Maybe I was alarmed because, our furnace being broken, it got so damp in that place that a bedroom wall collapsed, the drywall soaked with condensation; this reminded me that physical dwellings aren’t much different than really fancy cardboard boxes.) I’d heard that much of San Francisco was built on fill dirt, including the Marina district not far from my place. I happened to work for a consulting firm that had maps of such stuff, and to my great relief I discovered that my building was among the few built on Franciscan bedrock. What luck!

Once I became a homeowner, of course, I begin to truly fear earthquakes for the first time. The initial (pre-purchase) home inspection hadn’t turned up any major structural shortcomings, but even so my wife and I decided to have the house inspected by a seismic engineering firm. The first thing that pointed out is that our master bedroom is right over the garage, meaning it has only three load-bearing walls instead of four. They recommended about $8,000 in retrofits, to be divided into two phases. I was of course in no position to second-guess them. They threw around terms like “shear forces,” “cripple walls,” and “movement frames,” and my eyes glazed over, and I wrote them a check for four grand.

They did seem busy down there in the crawl space, but I don’t know exactly what they did; for all I know, they played cards. We never did get around to the second phase, and I can’t foresee having enough money for it anytime soon. But when I got an opportunity to buy earthquake insurance, I took it, and though I shudder to think how much I’ve spent on it over the years, I do breathe a little easier.

Silver lining

There are positive aspects to the California earthquake risk. First of all, it keeps a lot of people away. I know the cliché is that rich Californians are always invading places like Oregon when they retire, polluting these innocent communities with their money and their weird ideas. But this state is pretty crowded itself, and the more people decide to settle here, the more competition we have for jobs, and the more expensive it gets for us to try to buy property of our own. So when people deride the Bay Area for its earthquake risk, its famous cold and wind and fog, and our rolling power outages, I’m quick to agree. Yes, you’re right, it’s an awful place. Please stay away.

The other thing to remember is that when San Francisco was completely destroyed by earthquake (and the resulting fire) in 1906, the timing was actually pretty good. That was the golden era for architecture, in my opinion, and when the city was rebuilt, they really got it right. Imagine if that earthquake had happened in the 1950s … every replacement home would look like something out of “The Brady Bunch.” It would be horrible, like Marin County. Obviously that earthquake was a real tragedy, but it sure could have been worse.

The Great ShakeOut

On the big day, things didn’t go smoothly. I was supposed to be at the office in San Francisco, where an announcement would be played and everyone in the building would drop, cover, and hold on for about a minute. But an early morning conference call (an occupational hazard of being in the Pacific time zone) went long, and I realized I wouldn’t make it to the office by 10:21. So I decided to work from home. Of course, taking it upon myself to do the drill, rather than reacting to a sudden announcement over the PA system, just didn’t seem right. So I downloaded an earthquake drill recording from a page and used the Windows Task Scheduler to have it play automatically at 10:21.

It worked almost perfectly. My only regret is that my PC speakers aren’t louder, and that there wasn’t more space under my desk. My wife and I squeezed in there—I had to hurriedly chuck a wastepaper can out of the way—and as we thumped around looking for a good place to hold on, we couldn’t hear the instructions very well. I’d hoped there would be a big whooping siren sound on the MP3 recording, but there was not. A minute later the drill was over and I have to admit, it was a bit anticlimactic. (In case you were thinking there was something romantic about the two of us under the desk together, think again: I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth.)

My daughter Alexa participated in the ShakeOut at school, but didn’t see fit to mention it to us. I asked her about it tonight and she said, “Yeah, we had a drill.” I asked how long it lasted. “Oh, a long time. Well, it was like two or three minutes. But it felt like an hour. It was really uncomfortable under my desk.” She dropped, covered, and pantomimed holding on to something. Her form was so good … I felt proud, and glad that she’s in a school that does things right.


I wouldn’t say the Great ShakeOut changed my life, but if I hadn’t become aware of the event, I’d never have learned that my former earthquake strategy—the “triangle of life”—was completely wrong. Plus, I now have some resources to glance at now and then. I’ve already scheduled my PC to run the drill recording for next year’s Great ShakeOut (which will be on Thursday, October 20 at 10:20 a.m.). Above all, when I’m surfing my bedroom floor down to the driveway one day, busting through gas lines in the process, at least I’ll fell like I did something to prepare for the moment.

dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. Reading your blog during lunch often leaves me feeling a little depressed. You often talk of food, and my lunches aren't always spectacular, particularly today, so your blogs leave me feeling hungry and underprivileged. I had an apple, some old melon, and toast. That's right, toast. Fortunately, there was butter and Marmite (, and Ed actually gave me some of his tasty chicken, so my toast turned into a delicious sandwich. Well, a pretty good sandwich, but nothing like the glorious international buffet of which you partook! I want that! That's one good thing about living in a diverse place like you do--good potlucks.

    So you didn't even brush your teeth for the Great ShakeOut? I thought the object was to be prepared! You even had a woman under that table! I'm surprised at you!

    I found this post, and some of the linked web pages, quite useful. I've only experienced one small earthquake, while in Oak Harbor, and remember it very well, particularly that I didn't do anything except wonder, then marvel, at what was happening. (My kids did drop and climb under desks while at school, though.) However, "they" promise that the Big One will hit any day now, and when it does, oh boy. I'm sure water will be involved, too. So it's good to know that getting under my cheesy desk thing is a good thing to do, as opposed to going to a doorway or ridin' 'er down. Fortunately I had never heard of the "triangle of life." I was curious, however, yet a little scared that if I read about it, when the Big One actually hits, I won't remember which advice is the good advice and which is the bad. But the advice to get down in the street next to your car, or your desk, that just seems nuts in retrospect. Plus, the good advice has that handy limerick, "Stop, Drop and Roll." I can work with that. Or was it "Stop, Rock and Roll?" Well, I'm sure I'll be able to figure it out when the time comes. Anyway, thanks for the post!