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On shaky ground: Earthquake preparedness a necessity in NWOK

From the ENE ongoing investigation: Who's at fault? series
  • 5 min to read

ENID, Okla. — Oklahoma is moving and shaking, but that’s not a good thing.

The state has experienced 2,154 earthquakes greater than a 1.5 magnitude this year, including a 4.7 shaker 8 miles southwest of Cherokee on Nov. 19, according to the U.S. Geological Society. 

TIPS on how to stay safe during a large earthquake

From 1978 to 2008, the state experienced two earthquakes magnitude 3 or greater per year, according to the USGS. 

With the drastic increase in seismic activity in Ok­­lahoma, locals need to start taking precautions to prepare for a big earthquake; a 5 to 6 magnitude earthquake can cause damage to poorly constructed buildings, and a 6 to 7 magnitude earthquake can cause damage in a wide area around the epicenter. 

However, few state and local agencies in Oklahoma have discussed or implemented earthquake precautions.

In contrast, the National Weather Service estimates Oklahoma saw 107 tornadoes this year. 

The state requires schools to perform 10 safety drills each year: two intruder drills, two lockdown drills, two tornado drills, two fire drills and two other drills that could include, but are not limited to, earthquake, hazardous material, and school bus evacuation drills. 

‘It makes sense’ 

Even though the state has experienced more than 20 times more earthquakes than tornadoes, few school districts are implementing earthquake drills. 

Amber Graham Fitzgerald,  communications director for Enid Public Schools, said the district doesn’t do earthquake drills.

“We conduct the drills required by Oklahoma law, which address a number of emergencies, but not earthquakes,” she said. “Given the increasing number we have experienced, we expect there will be more dialogue at the district-, community- and state-level in the future regarding earthquakes.”

The topic is on the table, though, and the district isn’t wholly unprepared, she said.

“We met this summer with local law enforcement officials to discuss disaster preparedness and response, and our plan is flexible so that it can be used in the event of different situations,” she said. “The key … is to continue to keep the lines of communication open with local law enforcement agencies who will be the first responders in the event of an emergency …. The Garfield County Emergency Management director has even recently visited all schools to provide guidance related to emergency preparedness and response.” 

Other school districts, in­cluding Chisholm and Alva public schools, said they had “discussed” earthquake drills but had not implemented them and had no plans to do so at this point.

Cherokee Public Schools, however, use their two “other” drills to prepare students for an earthquake during a school day, high school principal Jeremy Hickman said. 

“It makes sense for us to do earthquake drills,” he said. “We have our students get under the desk, away from windows and walls.”

The school librarian had posted a warning that in the event of an earthquake, students should stay away from book shelves, Hickman said. 

“I’m from here, and I never thought we would be doing this,” he said. “Tornadoes — that’s Oklahoma. But earthquakes? That’s not Oklahoma.”

The recent earthquakes have knocked items off walls and moved things around, Hickman said.

“I think we might have had some structure damage,” he said. “It’s hard to tell. Some of our older buildings are showing cracks.”

Although some students don’t take the drills seriously, others do, he said. 

“It’s something you’ve never experienced and you don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “It’s something we think is important. Maybe it will be something the state requires some day.”

‘It’s a no-notice event’ 

California, a state more than twice the size of Oklahoma, experiences earthquakes every day.

Brad Alexander, chief of media relations and public information at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the state doesn’t require schools to do earthquake drills, but many countries and districts that experience seismic activity voluntarily perform drills. 

Alexander recommended that people in earthquake-prone areas have a plan for what to do in the event of a big earthquake, and to practice that plan.

Talking about what to do is not enough, he said.

“If it’s not written down, it’s not exercised, I don’t see how you can be prepared,” he said. 

California school systems like the Los Angeles Unified School District perform exhaustive earthquake drills.

LAUSD Coordinator of Emergency Services Jill Barnes said the district does an earthquake drill every month, as well as participating in the international earthquake drill the Great ShakeOut every year.

“Out here, it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when,’” she said. “We have several earthquakes a year out here that you can feel.”

Earthquakes come without warning, and students need to be able to react quickly, she said.

“It’s a no-notice event,” she said. “Basic protocol is when there’s shaking, everyone does the drop, cover and hold on. We follow that by evacuating everyone out to the field in case of building damage.” 

The district keeps a three-day supply of food and water on every campus in big shipping containers, she said, and staff members are trained in search and rescue, as well as triage. 

“Response from first responders is delayed so we want to be able to take care of our students,” she said. 

In addition to regular drills, LAUSD does two expanded drills per year, Barnes said, in which staff members put on the search and rescue equipment and perform mock searches and building checks; students are tagged with injuries and sorted through triage.

Barnes said that if there’s a “reasonable” chance a large earthquake could occur in Oklahoma, she recommended implementing drills.

“One reason for doing drills and being prepared is that it works to reduce people’s anxieties,” she said. “People panic a lot less when they know what to do. Even if we are starting with children in schools, they can take those lessons home, and those lessons spread from there.”

What are the chances? 

Earthquakes generally follow a pattern: the more smaller magnitude earthquakes there are, the more likely is a larger earthquake to occur, USGS Geologist Bill Ellsworth said. 

Todd Halihan, a professor in the Oklahoma State University Boone Pickens School of Geology, echoed the concern.

“(Seismologists) usually say, ‘You’ve had this many threes, this many fours and this many fives,’’” he said. “We’ve been short on the big ones.”

Halihan added that it’s difficult or impossible to predict an earthquake’s magnitude, location or timing.

Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist with the USGS, said a big one is coming, and referenced the Prague earthquake on Nov. 5, 2011, which broke windows and damaged brick and stone structures.

“You’ve already had a 5.7, but fortunately, it was in a remote enough area that not too much damage occurred, but a 5.7 to 6 seems like it could happen in other regions,” he said. “Just about any of the fault structures that have produced magnitude 4 (quakes) over the last two years seems like they could produce a larger earthquake.

“The factors are aligned for Oklahoma to have another damaging earthquake, magnitude 5.7 to 6, in the future, but exactly when it could happen is unclear.” 

What do we do?

The Great ShakeOut recommends three steps to protect yourself during an earthquake: drop to the ground, cover your head and neck with your arms and seek shelter by getting under a sturdy table or desk nearby, and hold on to your shelter and be prepared to move with it until the shaking stops. 

The Great ShakeOut warns people to stay inside until the shaking stops because injuries are more likely to occur when a person is on the move. 

Garfield County Emergency Manager Mike Honigsberg recommends that residents in northwest Oklahoma have an emergency plan and kit with enough food, water and cash to last for several days in the event of an evacuation; know where the gas shutoff valve in your home is so you can turn off the gas in the event of line break; after an earthquake get outside in the event of aftershocks; when the shaking has stopped, check your home for damage. 

Ken Garcia, media relations manager for the Red Cross of Oklahoma, suggested that residents practice drills in their homes and secure heavy items like book shelves and cabinets.

“Bolt cabinets to the walls so if there is shaking, they won’t fall over,” he said. “Install strong cabinets, brace overhead light fixtures, move mirrors away from beds. Just go around your home and make sure everything is secure.” 

For more information on earthquake safety or to learn about The Great ShakeOut, visit www.shakeout.org

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