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'This was not the big one. This is a wake-up call': How to be ready for and survive an earthquake

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Updated - Mar. 18, 2020 at 11:52 a.m. | Posted - Mar. 18, 2020 at 9:29 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The 5.7 magnitude earthquake that just hit Utah is Bob Carey's "designer earthquake" — the seismic movement he's been hoping for.

The earthquake was the largest the Beehive State has experienced in nearly 30 years, but it was a moderate-sized one, said Carey, the response and recovery bureau chief for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

"(A 5.7 magnitude earthquake) is not going to cause a lot of damage. You're not going to see any deaths with this. But it's a reminder that we live in earthquake country," Carey said during a Wednesday press conference. "I spent my entire career in government trying to convince people that this is a problem."

"This was not the big one. This is a wake-up call," Keith Koper, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Station, agreed — adding that it's time everyone in the state of Utah started making preparations.

While Koper and Carey do not expect a larger earthquake to hit any time within the next few weeks, "the big one" will come eventually, they said. And a magnitude 7 earthquake would release 1,000 times more energy than a magnitude 5, Koper explained.

"It's substantial. It's a totally different animal. ... And it would have been horrific," he warned.

Now, if you sat frozen with fear as your house began to sway, you’re not alone. But it’s important to be prepared and ready to act should something happen again.

How to protect yourself during an earthquake

Emery Smith, a Utah resident from San Francisco, California, said she’s experienced multiple earthquakes during her lifetime. The largest was the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which was responsible for 63 deaths.

Smith was 11 and had just finished her ballet class when the room began to shake.

“I was in a room surrounded with mirrors with a bunch of little girls and no doorways to stand under,” she said.

Since then, Smith has experienced several earthquakes, though none quite as large. But the earthquake that shook Utah Wednesday morning was still frightening.

“I’m more calm because it’s happened often. But, you know, I’ve been through a lot of earthquakes, and I was still rattled this morning,” she said.

But staying calm is probably her first piece of advice to Utahns who may not be as earthquake-savvy.

“It isn’t helpful to feel panic or to act on that panic,” Smith counseled.

Remaining calm also allows you to quickly follow the recommendations from the United States Geological Survey:

  • If you’re inside: Stay inside — then drop, cover and hold on! Get under a desk or table and hang on so it doesn’t slide away. If there’s no desk or table readily available, move into a hallway or against an inside wall. Stay away from windows, fireplaces, heavy furniture and appliances — and get out of the kitchen! Don't run downstairs or rush outside while the building is shaking.
  • If you’re outside: Get into the open away from power lines, chimneys, buildings and anything else that might fall on top of you.
  • If you’re driving: Stop driving, but carefully — don’t ever stop on or under a bridge or overpass or under trees, light posts, power lines or signs. Move your car out of traffic as much as possible. Stay in your car until the shaking stops. When you continue driving, watch for breaks in the pavement or other debris in the road.
  • If you’re in a mountainous area: Watch out for rockslides, landslides, trees and other debris that the earthquake might have loosened.

In the minutes immediately following the earthquake, check on your family members and prepare yourself in case a larger earthquake hits, said Jeff Maxfield, a professor of emergency services at Utah Valley University. Though that's unlikely, it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

After you've ensured that those around you are safe, check your home for damage — especially broken gas or water lines. Report any broken lines, especially gas, to the authorities and get out of the house if there is damage.

How to prepare for an earthquake

To this day, Smith keeps a pair of hard-bottom slippers by her bed so she can quickly get up and leave the house during an earthquake and protect her feet from broken glass and other debris — a tip that Maxfield also espouses. He also suggests keeping a flashlight and emergency kit by the bed to grab in times of, well, emergency.

Be Ready Utah also recommends a few steps to earthquake preparedness, including:

  • Identify potential hazards in your home and fix them: Secure hanging objects on closed hooks and place only "soft art" like unframed posters and rugs above the bed. Secure objects on shelves with earthquake putty, secure cabinet doors and refrigerators, and have a professional assess your pipes and appliances.
  • Create a disaster preparedness plan: Get together with your family and come up with a plan on how you will stay safe during the earthquake and how you will respond and communicate after the earthquake.
  • Prepare disaster supply kits: Create personal and household disaster kits. Be Ready Utah has a list of helpful items to include.
  • Identify your building's potential weaknesses and begin to fix them: Is your house, condo or apartment strong enough to withstand an earthquake? Check on its structural safety.

The importance of being prepared

Maxfield and his students have been studying emergency preparedness in New Zealand where a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch in 2010. There was damage but no loss of life. Four months later, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the city and destroyed it.

"The lesson that they keep sharing with us is, everybody thinks it's not going to happen. They ask, 'When is the next one?'" Maxfield said. "One of the professors told us that his answer is: 'Tomorrow at 1 o'clock.' And everyone knows that that's not necessarily predictable, but his message is 'Be prepared as though it were happening tomorrow at 1 o'clock.'"

Contributing: Graham Dudley, KSL.com

Editor's Note: Keith Koper, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Station, originally said a magnitude 7 earthquake would release 1,000 times more energy than a magnitude 6. He later clarified, saying he meant a magnitude 5 instead of 6.

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