By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent
There are moments, events in all our lives that are etched in our memories. They are with us forever. The good ones, we gladly recall. The bad ones, we’d like to forget or at least stuff away in some remote receptacle in our minds.
For me, one of those haunting events took place a little over thirty years ago in Mexico City, Mexico. On the morning of September 19, 1985 a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook the ground beneath the city. More than four hundred buildings collapsed. People died. To this day, no one is quite sure how many. The estimates vary wildly from five thousand to thirty thousand.
That night, I was on the ground reporting for CNN. Fires still burned. Smoke rose from every corner of the city. People dazed and in shock stood on the streets, the rubble of homes and businesses around them. All they had left were the clothes they were wearing.
Yet, the image that remains most vivid for me is what transpired over the next week at the city’s Juarez Hospital. It had collapsed floor on top of floor. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and patients died. Every night we would go there for updates and to watch rescuers dig through the debris. Hundreds of people watched too, some hoping a relative would be pulled free others were just there because there was no place else to go. Huge spotlights run off generators were focused on the building, what was left of it. Every time the rescuers would hear something, a hint of life, the crowd went silent. There were survivor stories. In fact, more than dozen infants were pulled out alive. To this day, they are known as the “Miracle Babies.”
Mexico City was a long time ago and much has changed when it comes to earthquake resilience, awareness, and preparedness. I’d call it “RAP” if it helped get folks attention. Here at home, the focus on educating the public and strengthening infrastructure has never been greater. Look no further than next month when the National Earthquake Conference convenes in Long Beach, California. Held every four years, it brings together scientists, engineers, emergency managers, first responders, insurers; everybody who’s got skin in the game to discuss what’s new, what’s next, and developing a national strategy.
So now you’re raising your eyebrows. A national strategy you ask? Isn’t that like telling people in Alaska they need to worry about hurricanes! Well, unlike hurricanes, just about every state can be impacted by an earthquake. Remember 2011? The epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 was Louisa County, Virginia. If we go back a ways, between December of 1811 and February 1812, three earthquakes all estimated greater than magnitude 7.0 struck the central U.S. along the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Experts say that area is thirty years overdue for a quake greater than six.
Now, unless you’ve seen it, lived through it, it is impossible to comprehend. But every expert will tell you that being prepared can be a game saver for you and your family. Just knowing the very basics can make a difference. So here’s a pop quiz. Do you know what to do if the ground starts shaking? It’s pretty straight forward…Drop, Cover, and Hold On. What you don’t do is run. Mark Benthien is Outreach Director for the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC. “When people run it’s not necessarily because they are in panic mode. It’s a rational reaction-they’re running because they are afraid of being hurt.” However, research shows people who run are more likely to be hurt. “It’s like running down the center of a plane during heavy turbulence,” Benthien says. The bottom line he adds, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”
And, the “afterwards” will last a whole lot longer than the event itself. Even in the biggest earthquake in Southern California, Benthien says, “Ninety-nine percent of the people will be alive and probably not injured but living in a different world. Their concern should be how are they going to live after that.”
There’s no reason to sugar coat it. It won’t be pretty. Benthien laid out what might happen in the aftermath of a large quake on the San Andreas Fault:
- There could be as many as sixteen hundred fires burning. Not enough firefighters to put them all out. Mutual assistance from surrounding areas might not happen because they’d be dealing with their own issues.
- Water and sewer pipes will fracture. Repairs to the concrete pipes could take weeks or longer and replacing them? In a given year Benthien says, “There isn’t enough concrete made in the world to replace it.”
- Interstates 5 and 10 and the rail line might be impassable making it difficult at best to get in relief supplies and help.
- With the Interstates and rail line crippled, goods coming into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach might pile up on the docks. The entire nation would be affected.
So look, go to FLASH.org. Just take a few minutes of your time. You will find invaluable tips for keeping your family safe and your home earthquake ready. You can also go to Earthquakecountry.org and look for the seven steps to earthquake safety. What Mark Benthien said bears repeating, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”