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Take cover! After Maine earthquake, nationwide drill couldn't be more timely

Ben Anderson

Fire safety might have "Stop, drop and roll," but on Thursday morning, it'll be "drop, cover and hold on" as Alaska and much of the rest of the U.S. participate in the largest earthquake-preparedness drill ever.

The event is particularly timely, too, with unusual quakes cropping up in recent weeks in Dallas and a magnitude-4.6 tooth-rattler centered in Maine that shook a good portion of New England Tuesday.

Dubbed the "Great ShakeOut," the drill  -- which will include participating countries overseas -- takes place at 10:18 a.m. (local time), Oct. 18, rippling across time zones until Alaska becomes the final participant. 

More than 14 million people are expected to participate worldwide, 12 million of those on the West Coast of the U.S., according to the Seattle Times. Authorities are also using the opportunity to dispel some myths about earthquake safety -- in particular, the idea that being next to a solid, heavy object is safer than being under a table or desk, and that a doorway is often the safest place in the event of a quake.

Officials say that most buildings in the U.S. are designed to withstand collapse during earthquakes. That's especially true in Alaska, where a magnitude-9.2 earthquake in 1964 devastated some of the state's southern communities. Building codes after that quake were specifically geared toward preventing building collapses in the event of another strong temblor. 

Because buildings are not prone to collapse, the most common danger becomes smaller falling debris and broken glass, in which case taking shelter underneath something can be helpful.

Longtime Alaskans, particularly those who grew up going to school in the state, are familiar with earthquake drills like the one to be conducted Thursday. In the Anchorage School District, "duck-cover-hold" drills are still conducted monthly in the area's elementary schools, and twice a year at other schools.

Earthquake drills in Anchorage schools are treated with the same seriousness as other emergencies, including potential bombings or explosions, storms, or fires.

Back in the mid-1990s, there was talk that Alaska's Southcentral region was growing overdue for another big earthquake along the lines of the 1964 shaker. The prevailing theory was that the region should see a major earthquake every 30 years or so.

The worry was enough to send elementary-aged kids to school with "comfort kits," large Ziploc bags containing warm clothes, an emergency blanket, some small foodstuffs, and even a letter from loved ones and maybe a picture of the student's family. In this writer's elementary classroom, they were tucked in a large barrel in one corner.

As the most seismically active state in the U.S., Alaska has certainly seen its fair share of big quakes in the almost 50 years since the 1964 "Good Friday" earthquake. Some earthquakes registering magnitude 7.0 and above have occurred in that time, mostly out in the sparsely-populated Aleutian Islands.

Nowadays, the Anchorage School District maintains 22 "shelter sites," according to a spokeswoman. Those are typically large shipping containers, located on school grounds, stocked with blankets, food and other emergency equipment.

More than 60,000 Alaskans have registered for this year's "ShakeOut," including schools in Southeast, Interior, and Southcentral regions of the state. The Alaska Department of Homeland Security offers these best-practices for the drill, and in the event of an actual quake:

  • Drop to the ground (before the earthquake drops you!)
  • Take cover by getting under a sturdy desk or table, and
  • Hold on to it until the shaking stops.

To see more about Thursday's drill, and about earthquake preparedness, click here.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com