Editor's Note: This is the first of many stories about earthquakes past and future that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of our October cover package, "Cracks in the Earth." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
When it comes to earthquake protocol, there’s a lot of bogus advice out there (we’re looking at you, interwebz). So we trolled to find the most common quake-behavior myths, then recruited S.F. Department of Emergency Management’s Kristin Hogan to fact-check them. Hogan’s tip? drop, cover, and hold on—just like they taught you in grade school.
Myth #1: “Practice taking cover in a door jamb—away from breaking glass and flying debris.” —Farmers’ Almanac Website
Busted: This might have been good advice back in the days of adobe houses, when the whole house would collapse save for the arching doorways. But in modern structures, the doorjamb is no stronger than the rest of the structure. so what should you do? Get down (preferably under a table or desk), curl up into a ball, and protect your vital organs.
Myth #2: “According to some research in Japan, cats are even better at predicting earthquakes than catfish (which have long been believed to have this ability by the Japanese).” —Pussington Post
Busted: “No, unfortunately,” says Hogan. “Animals may have a sixth sense when it comes to a lot of things, but the only early warning systems we have are technological.”
Myth #3: “When buildings collapse, the weight of the ceilings falling upon the objects or furniture inside crushes these objects, leaving a space or void next to them. This space is what i call the ‘triangle of life.’ The larger the object, the stronger, the less it will compact. The less the object compacts, the larger the void, the greater the probability that the person who is using this void for safety will not be injured.” —Doug Copp, rescue chief and disaster manager of American Rescue Team International*
Busted: “It’s appealing psychologically to find a cave or alcove,” says Hogan. “But in the time you’re taking to find that triangular haven, you’re exposing yourself to falling objects—and drastically increasing your chance of injury.” The better option? “‘Drop, cover, and hold on’ can feel vulnerable, but we want to drive home that message.”
Myth # 4: “If you are in bed and an earthquake occurs, simply roll off the bed. a safe void will exist around the bed.” —Copp
Busted: As long as the building doesn’t pancake, you’re less likely to get injured if you stay where you are, says Hogan. If you roll off the bed, you could land on broken glass or other sharp objects. hold on and protect your head with a pillow.
Myth #5: “Is it safe to run outside during a quake? Outside is overall the safest place because you’re not under a ceiling that can collapse.” —wiki.answers.com
Busted: “The biggest risk during an earthquake is things falling on you and getting hurt while the ground is shaking. If you’re running to get outside, that’s a big stretch of time when things could fall on you. So drop where you are and become as small a ball as possible,” says Hogan. Even if you’re close to a desk or table? “Yes. don’t try and run to a table or a desk. Just drop where you are and hold on. Drop before the earthquake drops you.”
Myth #6: “I discovered, while crawling inside of collapsed newspaper offices, that paper does not compact. Large voids are found surrounding stacks of paper.” —Copp
Busted: “In the purest form of the theory, sure, if you happen to be in a paper mill,” Hogan says. “But if the ground is shaking and you think, ‘oh, paper will protect me! Let me pause and create this environment around me that will be more suitable for an earthquake,’ you’re going to get hurt. It’s about not running around.”
* Copp’s theories are not necessarily wrong, especially in underdeveloped countries where structures are more likely to collapse. But strict seismic codes in the United States reduce the chances of a building pancaking. Most safety experts agree that during the shaking, time is more critical than your specific location.
Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco