image of statue that fell to the ground after the 1906 earthquake
anticipation, disaster, earth

In an Earthquake, Outside

Some jarring footage out of Lorca, Spain, from the 11th of May:

One of the persistent scenarios that has come up when talking about earthquakes is what to do if you happen to be walking down a sidewalk and surrounded by buildings. If you’re inside a building, you should take cover under a sturdy desk or table and wait it out. But if you’re strolling downtown after lunch, what about the falling glass or bricks or cornices? Remember this scene from Yokohama during the Japanese earthquake in March?

workers run from large objects falling from buildings
Large chunks of the building or signage came crashing to the ground. (This is just a screenshot as I haven’t found a video I can embed, but you should definitely watch the clip on the BBC’s site.)

It’s hard to know what the best advice is for any given situation. I remember asking one expert about the outside/near buildings scenario, but all he could really suggest was to get away from buildings. That’s probably as all-purpose as anyone can get. It’s also the advice that comes from FEMA and the Southern California Earthquake Center, for example.

There are so many factors at work in a situation like this—what kind of building, how close are you, can you get inside, is the street blocked— and only a moment to react. There is surely some element of chance involved.

Closed-circuit TV footage from February’s destructive Christchurch, New Zealand, quake showed the exterior of a building essentially peeling off. Still, at the moment of shaking, who would expect that so much brick would fall from the building, and so far—that the physics would be just so? In the footage, a passerby can be seen running toward the building and taking shelter in an alcove. It works, the bricks fall just beyond him and he walks away apparently unscathed. The person who provided the footage says he did the right thing by staying out of the street.

Addendum, 23 August 2011: After today’s Viriginia earthquake, somebody pointed out that FEMA also has a page that says, more directly:

If outdoors
-Stay there.
-Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
-Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

[Image at top: A statue of scientist Louis Agassiz at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake. Via USGS Photographic Library.]

Standard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *