EARTHQUAKES AND PUBLIC HEALTH

By Mara Constantine
 
 
In light of the large number of earthquakes in Berkeley this past Fall, as well the fairly large one in Oklahoma, we may be thinking seriously for the first time about an earthquake plan.  When living in more or less temporary housing, as students often do, it’s easy to tell yourself the “Big One” won’t come while you’re living there and to put off taking appropriate precautions.  According to the USGS, there is a 63% probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake striking the greater San Francisco Bay Region in the next 30 years.  In other words, there is a chance that a strong earthquake could hit this year.  
 
While it’s impossible to know the exact probability of an earthquake occurring during a more specific time range, there are simple and easy steps we can all take to help us prepare for the aftermath of an earthquake.  The first step is awareness – it is important to know what risks you face in the event of a strong trembler.  Do you live in a soft story apartment building?  A soft story building is typically a several-story apartment building located over a parking garage or a series of retail businesses (with large windows).  The consequences of the soft story design were dramatically illustrated in the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake: “Upper floors were suspended above long, open areas instead of rigid walls. The spindly posts often propping up the lower floors proved to be no match against heavy, swaying upper stories.”  According to the City of Berkeley, soft story buildings “have performed poorly in recent earthquakes with some buildings collapsing and causing serious injury and death.”  So, if you live in this type of building it is important to be aware of the risk.  Since 2005, the City of Berkeley has required landlords to notify tenants if they live in a soft story building, the second phase of the Soft Story Program requires landlords to retrofit their buildings to improve their safety.  As of October, however, “only 66 out of the 269 landlords who own soft story buildings in the city have retrofitted.”  If you feel comfortable discussing this and taking a bit of a stand, talking to your landlord about your concerns about building safety may help encourage him or her to begin retrofits.  Because retrofits have been so slow, it is important to consider whether a building is soft story when looking for your next place to live.  
 
Building safety issues are also present on campus.  Please visit website of UC Berkeley’s Seismic Action Plan for Facilities Enhancement and Renewal to see if the buildings where you spend time are seismically fit: http://berkeley.edu/administration/facilities/safer/rating.html/. 
Despite years of retrofit and in some cases seismically unfit buildings being knocked down and entirely rebuilt, there are still an alarmingly large number of buildings on campus that are rated seismically poor.  While efforts to remedy this continue, such as the upcoming demolition of Campbell Hall, progress is frustrating slow because of lack of funding.  
In case of an earthquake, the US government recommends to keep in mind the mantra DROP, COVER, AND HOLD:  “DROP to the ground; take COVER by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture; and HOLD ON until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.”  The website ready.gov, published by the Federal Agency for Emergency Management, has information about what to do before, during, and after an earthquake in order to best stay safe.  Check out the website here: http://www.ready.gov/earthquakes!  
 
I’d like to leave you all with a few tips that are easy enough for even the busiest college student.  First, because fires are the most common hazard after an earthquake, make sure you have a fire extinguisher, know where it is, and know how to use it.  Second, have a supply of bottled water at all times.  During an earthquake, water pipes may rupture and local stores could quickly run out of water.  It is also recommended to keep a supply of canned food (with a can opener) in case an earthquake of very large magnitude has long lasting effects making it impossible to cook or to buy supplies.  Finally, phone service is known not to function properly when many people are making calls or sending texts at the same time, as would happen in the event of an earthquake.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to make a plan with your best friend or significant other of where to meet in case you cannot contact each other after an earthquake.  
 
 
 
 
 
 
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About the Author: Mara Constantine is a 4th year sociology major and California native. She is currently a research assistant for Professor Kristin Luker. In addition to writing for the Public Health Advocate blog, Mara is also an active member of the Cal Cooking Club and a tutor in the YWCA’s English-in-Action program. Her public health interests include maternal and child health, health of immigrant populations, and health disparities.
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