Californians Dive Under Desks in Biggest Earthquake Drill

Californians Dive Under Desks in Earthquake Rehearsal
Third grade students at William L. Cobb Elementary School take cover under desks as they participate in the 'Great California ShakeOut' earthquake drill in this October 20, 2011 file photo in San Francisco. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

More than 13 million people from Los Angeles to southern Italy are being asked to crouch under desks and tables tomorrow in an earthquake readiness drill that organizers say is the biggest ever.

Schools, hospitals, banks and other organizations have signed up to practice the survival technique known as “Drop, Cover and Hold On” at 10:18 a.m. in each time zone in the Great ShakeOut conceived by the U.S. Geological Survey, according to the Southern California Earthquake Center.

Rather than take shelter in a doorway or run outside, participants are being told to drop to their hands and knees, take cover under a table or desk, and hold on to it until the shaking stops. In California, 9 million will be taking part, making it the largest simultaneous disaster-preparedness exercise in history, said Lucile Jones, a USGS seismologist.

“We rarely see law-of-the-jungle panic,” said Jones, who’s based near Los Angeles and is a veteran of the 1994 Northridge earthquake there that killed 60 and caused $20 billion in damage. “The biggest disasters tend to bring out the best in people. We tend to think the best way to prepare for the earthquake is to have the earthquake drill.”

California will almost certainly be hit within 30 years by another earthquake as strong as the Northridge temblor, the geological survey predicted in 2008. The famous 1906 earthquake in San Francisco that killed as many as 5,000 people and set off fires that razed most of the city was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

Earthquake Strengthening

California is regularly jolted and voters approved at least $2.3 billion in bonds to strengthen government buildings, highways and bridges after the Loma Prieta quake during the 1989 World Series rocked San Francisco.

The ShakeOut, which began in 2008 in Southern California, has spread to other regions of the U.S. and overseas. Since then, a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 killed at least 15,000 people and caused three nuclear reactor meltdowns. That same year, a 5.8-magnitude quake surprised the U.S. East Coast and cracked the Washington Monument.

In addition to California and Italy, tomorrow’s drill will be played out in parts of Alaska, Arizona, British Columbia, Georgia, Guam, Idaho, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington state, according to organizers.

Training Effectiveness

Researchers from several universities plan to survey ShakeOut participants in an attempt to gauge its effectiveness, said Lance Webster, a spokesman for the Earthquake Country Alliance, the umbrella group coordinating the exercise.

There’s no way to estimate the cost of the drill, said Mark Benthien, executive director of the Earthquake Country Alliance. Expenses are borne by the group with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, and in the time granted to participants by employers and government bodies.

For more than 15 years until this year, most of California had been unusually calm seismically, lulling newcomers into complacency, Jones said. A swarm of quakes in the Southern California desert, including a magnitude 5.1 temblor in August, suggests normal activity is returning, she said.

“It’s a false sense of security we have sometimes,” said Armando Hogan, a Los Angeles Fire Department battalion chief. “We’re not trying to scare anyone, but we really want to encourage a sense of preparedness.”

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