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New Alert System Shakes Up Traditional Quake Teachings


For years, experts have said that if there’s an earthquake we should “Duck, Cover and Hold.” That is, duck under something strong — like a desk — then stay under cover and hold on until the shaking stops.

But Corbett School District superintendent Randi Trani doesn’t think the mantra works for his middle school. Corbett Middle School was built in 1921 without benefit of steel rebar or such modern ideas as tying the walls to the roof.

RELATED: What Is Your School’s Risk?

“When seismic engineers walk through, they shake their head,” Trani said. “This building is a dramatically dangerous building.” 

So, contrary to advice from the American Red Cross, FEMA, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management — and just about every other emergency agency you can think of — Trani doesn’t tell his kids to “duck, cover and hold.”

Corbett School District superintendent Randy Trani inspects one of the crumbling walls at the Middle School.

Corbett School District superintendent Randy Trani inspects one of the crumbling walls at the Middle School.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“The reality of this building is, you’re safer getting out as quickly as possible,” he said. “In the event of a real earthquake, that’s what we train them to do, is vacate the building as quickly as possible.”

And it’s not just students at Corbett Middle School in this position.

Eight years ago, a state study found that 649 schools are at high risk of collapse during a large quake — that’s about half of Oregon’s schools.

Weighing Old Advice Vs. New Alerts

Still, Trani’s advice to his students worries people like Ali Ryan Hanson of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

“I feel for them,” she said. “But at the same time, here’s what we know about how people survive earthquakes: Flying and falling objects are more of a danger than collapsed buildings.”

Fifth graders Kashmir Pesicka, right, and Mason Stroud begin to get up after taking shelter under their classroom tables during an earthquake drill at West Woodland Elementary school October 17, 2013, in Seattle.

Fifth graders Kashmir Pesicka, right, and Mason Stroud begin to get up after taking shelter under their classroom tables during an earthquake drill at West Woodland Elementary school October 17, 2013, in Seattle.

Elaine Thompson/AP

“Drop, cover and hold on is the best action you can take as soon as the ground starts shaking,” Hanson said. 

She said the shaking during a large quake could be so violent that people can’t stand up, let alone run outside. And it could last for four minutes.

“Anything that you have in your home or in your school that is up high that could fall, that could topple, that could fly, it’s going to be doing it,” she said. “It’s kind of like the most terrifying obstacle course you’ve ever been in.”

A study of the 1994 Northridge quake in Los Angeles found that 80 percent of injuries happened to those who didn’t duck, cover and hold. That’s why emergency service are sticking with the message.

But a proposed new warning system, known as ShakeAlert, could change things. Essentially, the early alert system would involve an array of seismometers that could detect shaking at an earthquake epicenter, then send out a warning to far-off cities.

The cost to build the new ShakeAlert system amounts to about $38 million dollars — that’s how much an investor recently paid for the world’s most valuable car — a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.

Video still of the beta version of Shake Alert, an earthquake early warning system being developed by the USGS along with a coalition of university partners.

Video still of the beta version of Shake Alert, an earthquake early warning system being developed by the USGS along with a coalition of university partners.

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network

Will Government Fund Early Warnings?

Assistant Professor Amanda Thomas is working on the new system at the University of Oregon. She said if a subduction zone quake started in the southernmost tip of Oregon, for example, ShakeAlert could give Eugene as much as a two-minute warning. Portland could get three minutes and Seattle four.

“If you’re an elementary school and you were built in the ‘40s and you do have three minutes of warning, it is likely better to evacuate,” she said.

RELATED: Oregon’s Schools Might Collapse In Earthquake, But Help Is Coming

 Earthquake experts are always discussing what’s best, she said, to evacuate or to duck, cover and hold.

Thomas said the choice depends largely on your situation.

“How far away you are? How much warning time you have. What type of building you’re in?  And it’s a real challenge,” she said. “But it’s something that we’re working towards currently and will continue working towards.”

Federal and private donations means ShakeAlert is already in beta testing.

The system would take about three years to fully build. But Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio said money hasn’t been forthcoming because the feds are focused on cleaning up after disasters rather than preparing for them.

“It’s an uphill battle here in D.C.,” DeFazio said. “But, I would hope that between the six senators from the three states — California, Washington and Oregon combined — that we can shake the money loose.”  

About Unprepared

OPB’s Unprepared series is dedicated to stories that inform our community about the dangers of a megaquake, and to examining ways our region can be better prepared. Oregon Field Guide spent the last year-and-a-half probing the state’s level of preparedness. It found that Oregon is dangerously far behind many quake-prone regions in the world. Watch the hour-long Oregon Field Guide Unprepared special.

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Oregon Field Guide spent a year-and-a-half probing into the state of Oregon's preparedness, and found that when it comes to bridges, schools, hospitals, building codes and energy infrastructure, Oregon lags far behind many quake-prone regions of the country. This sneak preview of the full documentary airing October 1 is a continuation of OPB's ongoing news series "Unprepared".