A Generation Without an Earthquake

Recent Earthquakes centered in Kern County are the largest in twenty years, meaning that for many, they are also their first.

After the shaking stopped, the posting on social media began. Windows had rattled, the ground had swayed, and as many reported, next came panic. People reported running outside, grabbing the kids and pets, and not knowing what to do. It was particularly disorienting for a generation with no direct experience of what to do when an earthquake hits.

As the first major earthquakes to strike California in 20 years, Thursday’s 6.4 earthquake and the larger 7.1 that struck Friday were the first tremblors for many. Even those who grew up in Southern California, where earthquakes are so cliche as to merit inclusion on the Universal Studios tour, may have been too young to have experienced or remembered the Northridge quake. Earthquakes are typically small and often aren’t even felt. Los Angeles is also a destination for people from all over the country, who may have weathered tornados, hurricanes, floods and and fires, but for whom an earthquake is a new experience.

Preparing for infrequent emergencies is difficult. Even with detailed instruction (move away from windows and large objects that could fall on you, drop and cover, stay indoors to avoid falling debris from buildings), the reality is that no matter how much you prepare reality is always different. Still, the widespread self reporting by people online that they didn’t know what to do was disconcerting.

The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the 1994 Northridge earthquake left their marks on the community. Many remember riding out the first tremors only to be slammed by the months of aftershocks. Some roads and buildings collapsed, there were significant injuries and fatalities, and at the epicenter life ground to a halt.

These were severe earthquakes and major disasters. But for those not in the immediate surroundings, those earthquakes also served as opportunities to educate and remind people to prepare: to keep flashlights around the house; to bolt book cases and tall dressers to the wall; and in case of power outages and closures to keep some bottled water and food at home and in the trunk, the car full of gas and some cash on hand.

The reality is that once an earthquake hits there isn’t much that can be done in the moment. Being prepared for an earthquake is about minimizing the number of things that can fall on you, and making sure you have shoes nearby so you can walk across the floor without getting broken glass in your feet. It’s about not panicking, not getting hurt, and being able to allow first responders to deal with those in most immediate need.

So far injuries have been minimal. There are no reported casualties. Fires and other damage will take time to repair, and the economic impact on the region most affected will be significant, along with the trauma experienced by many. But hopefully these earthquakes will also encourage more people to prepare. Already, social media postings are full of discussions of emergency plans, people assembling kits, and talking to kids and family members about what to do when the next one hits. In the meantime, for those who live in earthquake country, the Red Cross has information and tips on how to prepare.

I write about economics, technology and media. My views are my own.

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