Volcano Watch — How to reduce your earthquake risk

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Large, damaging earthquakes have occurred frequently in Hawai`i in the past and will occur again in the future, as we discussed last week. However, there is a great deal you can do to reduce your personal risk.

Large, damaging earthquakes have occurred frequently in Hawai`i in the past and will occur again in the future, as we discussed last week. However, there is a great deal you can do to reduce your personal risk.

There are some risks that are unique to this area, such as collapse of catchment water tanks and damage to liquid propane gas tanks, in addition to more typical damage to hot-water heaters. Each of these pose special risks that are relatively easy to eliminate. Liquid gas tanks and hot water heaters pose special problems because, if damaged, they can cause an explosion that can destroy your home and seriously injure or kill your family. Hot water tanks that fall over can cause serious water damage inside your home, in addition to the risk of explosion from leaking gas. Hot-water heaters and liquid gas tanks should be secured with straps. Water catchment tanks commonly collapse during earthquakes, thereby leaving rural residents without water. 

In order to address these and other ways of planning for - and thereby reducing the risks from - earthquakes, we asked Harry Kim and the staff at the Office of County Civil Defense to provide specific information on steps you can take to prepare for the next large earthquake in Hawai`i. What follows are their recomendations.

The people of the Island of Hawai`i have experienced many natural events over time. Unfortunately, some of these events have caused destruction of property and loss of life. It is important to recognize that earthquakes, tsunamis, eruptions, tropical cyclones, droughts, floods and other natural occurrences are a part of life on this island. Your responsibility is to know the hazards and to take measures to minimize the risk to you.

Scientists from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the University of Hawai`i at Hilo have reminded us that the Island of Hawai`i is the most active seismic zone in the United States. Earthquakes are unpredictable and strike without warning. People who have experienced earthquakes in Hawai`i will tell you of quakes that ranged in intensity from slight tremors to great ground shaking and about those that lasted a few seconds to what seemed like minutes.

The actual movement of the ground in an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of injury; most casualties result from falling objects or collapsing structures. Possible causes of injuries and damage include tall, heavy furniture which could topple, such as bookcases, standing cabinets, modular wall units, etc.; hot water heater or liquid propane gas tanks which can be pulled away from pipes and rupture; appliances and office equipment which could move enough to rupture gas or electrical lines; hanging plants that could swing free of hooks and heavy picture frames or mirrors; latches on cabinets that will not hold the door closed during shaking; breakable or heavy objects that are kept on high or open shelves; flammable liquids, such as paints and cleaning products, not stored in secure, flame-proof containers. Take steps to minimize or eliminate these risks by securing or relocating items, as appropriate.

Before the Shaking: Developing a Plan

Preparing yourself, family and work place for a disaster can safeguard you. Contact the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency for informational brochures on evacuation kits and home survival kits. We should all be prepared and have a family survival plan that informs all members of their responsibility and the content of the emergency plan. Include a survival kit with the following items: portable radio and batteries, flashlight and batteries, first aid kit, special medications, three- to five-day supply of non-perishable food, three- to five-day supply of water, adequate clothing, personal toiletries and sanitary needs, sleeping bags or blankets, candles and matches, fuel for stoves, hibachis and lanterns, and extra pet food.

Cope with and understand the emotional reactions to earthquakes. lt is becoming very evident to the people who experienced the earthquake last week in Northridge, California, that planning for an earthquake must involve emotional, as well as physical, readiness. Earthquakes are very frightening, but you can take measures to minimize the trauma, especially to children.

During the Shaking

Earthquakes can be dangerous, but, for the most part, you can avoid injury unless something falls down on you. If you are indoors, stay indoors. Protect yourself from any falling objects by hiding under something sturdy, such as a table or a desk. Stay away from anything that can fall and cause injury to you, such as glass and bookshelves. If you are outdoors, stay outdoors and away from buildings and utility poles and lines. If you are in a moving car, stop as quickly as safety permits and stay in your car. Steering may be difficult, but try to park away from things that can collapse on you.

After the Shaking

After the shaking, it is natural to want to run to safety. Stop and think. Don't panic and don't run. Stay away from anything that may injure you. Many injuries occur after a quake because people step on, or fall over, broken glass or other objects damaged by the quake. 

If you are in a coastal area, and the shaking was violent enough to cause you to lose your balance or hold onto something to keep from falling, immediately but cautiously move to higher ground. The earthquake may have generated a local tsunami.

Check your utilities and immediately turn off the main control switches if any damage is suspected (water, electrical, gas), and do not turn them back on until they are properly checked and repaired. Stay out of damaged buildings until the authorities determine that it is safe to enter. Listen for official broadcast of emergency bulletins, and do not use the telephone except in emergencies. 

Effective November 1993, Mayor Yamashiro signed into law the 1991 Uniform Building Code, which was passed unanimously by the Hawaii County Council. Adhering to regulations in the building code will insure a much safer place to work and live. Homes built prior to the new code can be made made more resistant to earthquakes. 

Next week's "Volcano Watch" will provide some practical advice on what you can do to reduce the risk of earthquake damage to your home.