What you’re supposed to do when the ground starts to shake

Just as some people in warmer climes don’t know how to handle snowstorms, residents in many areas of the United States — including the Washington region — aren’t accustomed to earthquakes.

Unlike in California and other earthquake-prone regions, where children are taught from an early age how to cope with temblors, many on the East Coast have never received even the most basic briefings on the subject.

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In State College, Pa., an Accuweather forecaster was in the middle of her report when the 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck.

In State College, Pa., an Accuweather forecaster was in the middle of her report when the 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck.

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Washington-area residents and workers crowded the streets near the White House on Tuesday following a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia. (Aug. 23)

Washington-area residents and workers crowded the streets near the White House on Tuesday following a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia. (Aug. 23)

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That inexperience mattered Tuesday, when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the area. Many people ran for the exits of their buildings, and office-dwellers poured out onto the streets of downtown Washington.

Did they do the right thing?

“There is a natural tendency to run outside, but if you are near a lot of high-rise buildings, it’s not necessarily the most safe place to be,” said Jack Moehle, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a former director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. “Usually in a mid-rise building like you have in D.C., we recommend people to hang on” inside.

The exception to that advice, Moehle said, “is if you’re in an old brick building. . . . Those are known as collapse hazards.”

During an earthquake, he added, children on the West Coast are taught “the old ‘duck, cover and hold,’ ” because “one of the things that is most likely to happen to you is that . . . things will fall on top of you.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides more details in its primer, “What to Do During an Earthquake.”

First, FEMA advises, people indoors during a quake should “DROP to the ground; take COVER by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture; and HOLD ON until the shaking stops. . . . Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.”

In other words, don’t go running for stairs or exits until the shaking is over.

Once the shaking has stopped and it is safe to go outside, FEMA cautions: “Move away from buildings, streetlights and utility wires. Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls.”

 
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