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Complacent in earthquake country.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A week ago, there was a 6.0 earthquake North of San Francisco. I didn’t feel it, because I was with my family in Santa Barbara that weekend. Even if we had been home, it’s not clear that we would have noticed it; reports are that some folks in San Jose felt some shaking but others slept through it.

Dana Hunter has a great breakdown of what to do if you find yourself in a temblor. Even for those of you nowhere near California, it’s worth a read, since we’re not the only place with fault lines or seismic activity.

But I must confess, I’ve lived in earthquake country for nearly 25 years now, and we don’t have an earthquake preparedness kit.

To be fair, we have many of the recommended items on the list, though not all in one place as an official “kit”. I even know where many of the recommended components are (like the first aid kit, which came with us to the swim league’s championship meet, and the rain gear, which comes out every year that we have a proper rainy season). But we haven’t got the preserved-with-bleach, replaced-every-six-months ration of a gallon of water per person per day. We’re in the middle of a drought right now. If we needed emergency water, how many days would we need it for?

Honestly, though, the thing that really holds me back from preparing for an earthquake is that earthquakes are so darned unpredictable.

My attitude towards earthquake preparedness is surely not helped by the fact that my very first earthquake, when I had been in California scarcely a month, was the October 1989 Loma Prieta quake, clocking in at 6.9 or 7.0, depending on who you ask. I felt that temblor, but had nothing to compare it to. At the time, it was actually almost cool: hey, that must be an earthquake! I didn’t know that it was big, or how much damage it had done, until my housemates got home and turned on the TV.

The earth shakes, but seldom for more than a minute. If after the shaking everything returns to normal, you might even go to the USGS “Did You Feel It?” page to add your data on how it felt in your location. Depending on where you are (a lab full of glassware and chemicals and students, a law library with bookcases lining the walls, a building with lots of windows, a multistory building on filled in land that used to be bay, a bridge), you may get hurt. But you may not.

Maybe you lose power for a day or two, but we survived the regular rolling blackouts when Enron was playing games with the California power grid. (That’s why I know where our flashlights and emergency candles are.) Maybe a water main breaks and you get by on juice boxes, tonic water, and skipping showers until service returns.

Since 1989, people in these parts have been pretty good about seismic retrofits. My impression is that the recession has slowed such retrofits down recently (and generally dealt a blow to keeping up infrastructure like roads and bridges), but it’s still happening. The new span on the Bay Bridge is supposed to have been engineered specifically with significant quakes in mind, although some engineers mutter their doubts.

I’d rather not be on a bridge, or a freeway, or a BART train when the big one hits. But we haven’t really got the kind of lead time it would take to ensure that — the transit trip-planners don’t include quakes the same way they do scheduled maintenance or even just-reported accidents.

There is no earthquake season. There is no earthquake weather. Earthquakes are going to happen when they happen.

So, psychologically, they are really, really hard to prepare for.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jrkipling 11:14 pm 09/1/2014

    Get an earthquake kit. Having one will not bring on the big one.

    Link to this

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