OKLAHOMA CITY — In addition to learning their ABCs, schoolchildren are taught to handle disasters that might befall their schools.
Each year, students run through a series of disaster preparations, according to the Department of Education. They include two fire drills, two intruder drills, two tornado drills, two lockdowns, and two additional drills that are prescribed by local school officials.
If a Democratic lawmaker from Oklahoma City has his way, another drill will be added to mix — for earthquakes.
“The earthquake legislation I’m doing is not earth-shattering,” said Rep. Mike Shelton. “It’s making sure people know what do during earthquakes and make sure they’re well protected.”
For five legislative sessions, Shelton has proposed a law requiring earthquake drills. For four years running, his colleagues have rejected the idea.
In the meantime, a frustrated Shelton said he’s watched more earthquakes rattle one community in his district — the town of Jones — and other parts of the state.
“It should never have been this hard to pass this piece of legislation,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we need to prepare our children, the faculty, staff, administrators.”
Shelton said his legislation doesn’t tell schools how to conduct earthquake drills — only that they must.
“It doesn’t get into all that muck and mire,” he said. “It just says they need to do it. It’s the school district’s responsibility, and the state superintendent’s responsibility, to make sure it’s ready.”
Shelton said he worries a growing number of temblors rattling the state is putting students and teachers at risk.
He questions whether classroom fixtures, such as whiteboards and pictures, are securely fastened to walls, or whether a strong earthquake could send an unanchored metal filing cabinet crashing down on the head of an unsuspecting student or teacher.
There is no one way to prepare for an earthquake, said Brian Blake, program coordinator The Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, an annual event in 14 states, including Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. The program seeks to get people to practice earthquake drills the third Thursday of every October.
“It’s really a variety of things that people do,” he said. “There’s not really a set way to do it right. That’s kind of the beauty of it. We encourage people to make their ShakeOut experience their own. Some people do very little. Others do quite a lot.”
“It’s not always about drop, cover and hold on,” he said. “It’s about taking some initiative to prepare yourself.”
Still, he said, practicing annually is imperative.
Like any other disaster preparation, he said, “If you have never practiced doing it correctly, chances are you probably won’t do it properly.”
Even people who don’t live in states that are constantly rattled by earthquakes, he said, likely are to someday visit a place that experiences one.
“We want to make sure people understand what to do if they feel one and actions they could take after,” Blake said.
Getting Oklahomans motivated to prepare for potentially big earthquakes is complicated, judging by statistics compiled by Blake’s group.
Only 57,000 participated in last year’s drill. Compare that with 522,500 Missourians and 79,000 Arkansas residents — both in less earthquake-prone states.
Texas participated for the first time last year.
Oklahoma schools aren’t alone in overlooking earthquake drills.
Other states, such as Indiana, don’t specially require the drill, either, but do mandate that schools perform a drill that best fits their needs, Blake said.
Shelton, however, wants to ensure Oklahoma students are learning to get ready for earthquakes.
He blames his colleagues for failing to take action sooner.
“Nobody has wanted to acknowledge (the earthquakes),” he said. “As long as it was in these small towns, where there was no big voting base, people were allowed to ignore it. We shouldn’t have to wait for stuff to happen to prepare.”
He said he worries it will take someone getting hurt before lawmakers implement a meaningful policy.
Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma reporter.