Loma Prieta 25 years later: Be ready for the rumble

Geologists and engineers aren't the only ones who learn something from seismic events. Since the major Bay Area quake of 1989, the experts who study how people fare when the ground starts shaking have made adjustments as well.

This is one of three stories marking the anniversary of the major 1989 Bay Area quake.

Take for example the conventional wisdom of taking shelter in a doorway during an earthquake. It has become clear that this is dangerous, according to Gayle Orr-Smith, SF State's emergency-preparedness coordinator. "You run the risk of the door swinging closed on you," she said. "Also there are only so many people who can fit in a doorway. You could get trampled."

Photo of emergency-preparedness coordinator Gayle Orr-Smith

Emergency coordinator Gayle Orr-Smith

These days, people are advised to get under something, preferably a desk, in the event of an earthquake. Then hang on tight. "Furniture with legs will walk across the room as the shaking goes on," Orr-Smith explained. "So you could be sitting there thinking you're safe, and the table will have moved." 

If there isn't anything to get under, the recommendation is to crouch down and cover the head and neck. It's also best to stay near a wall, as wreckage tends to fall toward the center of a room. But it is not a good idea to sprint for the exit: Orr-Smith pointed out that most quake injuries occur from falling debris as people try to enter or leave a building. 

Her message for anyone thinking about the next big shaker echoes the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. "There will never be enough responders to come and give aid," Orr-Smith said. "If you ask fire departments how much better prepared they are today than they were 25 years ago, they will tell you they have exactly as many pieces of equipment now as then. You've got to prepare yourself." Read more about what to do in an earthquake.

University Police Department Chief Patrick M. Wasley, who has memories of Loma Prieta as a patrolman, agreed. "Have food available, have water available not just at home -- at your office too," he said. "Do simple things like keeping half a tank of gas in your car at all times because the gas pumps depend on electricity, and if there's an outage, you're up a creek.

"You can never be 100 percent prepared, but you can certainly mitigate a lot of things by planning ahead," he remarked.

Emotional rescue

Of course, there is one thing you can never truly prepare yourself for: the trauma of living through a calamity. Although crisis counseling was around before Loma Prieta in one form or another, its practices have evolved since 1989.

Photo of Professor of Counseling Rebecca Toporek

Professor of Counseling Rebecca Toporek

"The standard procedure for doing post-disaster counseling back then was often group debriefing," said Rebecca Toporek, a professor in the Department of Counseling. "Calling community members together to talk about the event and what their thoughts and reactions were, talking about coping strategies -- things like that. That's changed over time."

Nowadays, counselors and therapists pay more attention to the many variables that affect both individuals and communities. "There used to be more of an effort to do broad-scale interventions, whereas now there's more of a recognition that some people are able to cope relatively well, whether it's because they have a good safety net in place or they have good coping mechanisms," she commented. These days, "more effort is put into targeted interventions -- finding ways to identify the people who need the most assistance."

Even with those individuals who need more help, there is a new emphasis on empowerment, seeking to help people recognize and tap into their own resilience. "Sometimes your coping skills are not so obvious when you are in a crisis," according to Lecturer Ulash Thakore-Dunlap, who teaches SF State's crisis-counseling course. "Seeing your strength becomes really difficult. Through short-term crisis counseling, we can help you access that."

So the next time an earthquake hits the Bay Area, in a way the message to both the community at large and its individual citizens will be the same: You have been through this this before. You can do it again. "It's about helping people see how they've already been able to overcome adversity," said Department of Counseling Chair Graciela León Orozco. "That gives them strength to continue and see hope for the future."

For more on Loma Prieta 25 years later, see our additional coverage: Lessons learned on earthquakes and engineering and SF State project monitors Bay Area faults.

-- Steve Hockensmith and Anthony Lazarus