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Volume 30, Issue 3

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As the reconstruction of San Francisco, California, began following the great quake of 1906, one Canadian traveler from British Columbia found the following anonymous poem written on a wall of the burned out city:

The cow is in the hammock,
The cat is in the lake;
The baby’s in the garbage can;
What difference does it make?
There is no water, and still less soap;
We have no city, but lots of hope.

It has been common knowledge to many of us in emergency preparedness that earthquakes have increased in recent times. From 1800 to the present, several hundred thousand lives have been claimed worldwide due to a cycle of growth in seismic activity. Between 1905-1906 alone, 380,000 people were killed in three countries due to large earthquakes. The following chart shows the nightmarish death tolls resulting from major quakes of this century.


1905-India 373,000
1906-Chile 1,500
1906-China 6,000
1906-U.S.A. 2,000
1907-Jamaica 12,000
1908-Italy 75,000
1915-Italy 30,000
1920-China 180,000
1923-Japan 143,000
1930-Italy 1,883
1932-China 70,000
1933-Japan 2,500
1934-India 6,000
1935-India 50,000
1935-Pakistan 60,000
1939-Turkey 23,000
1939-Chile 30,000
1944-Argentina 5,000
1946-Japan 2,000
1948-Japan 5,131
1949-Ecuador 6,000
1954-Afghanistan 2,000
1957-Iran 2,500
1957-Iran 3,000
1960-Chile 6,000
1960-Morocco 12,000
1962-Iran 12,000
1966-Turkey 2,529
1968-Iran 10,000
1969-China 3,000
1970-Peru 66,794
1972-Iran 5,057
1972-Nicaragua 10,000
1974-Pakistan 4,700
1976-Turkey 3,921
1976-Philippines 6,000
1976-Guatemala 23,000
1976-China 655,237
1977-Romania 1,570
1978-Iran 15,000
1980-Algeria 2,633
1980-Italy 4,684
1981-Iran 2,200
1982-Yemen 1,500
1983-Turkey 1,346
1985-Mexico 10,000

We can attribute this frequency of large quakes to the multiple plates of the earth’s crust which geographically carve up our continents like pieces of a giant puzzle. These plates are strategically joined to one another so as to connect all major coastlines where populations are most concentrated. Plates “travel” against adjoining plates up to several inches per year. As the Pacific plate affects all North America with constant movement northward, great stress has built up caused by a ten to twenty foot migration of this plate over the last two centuries.
From 1963-1977, great earthquakes of Richter magnitude 4.5 or greater have been concentrated throughout the Pacific, African, Arabian and Eurasian Plates. Because of this volume of events, disaster relief has escalated in great proportions, thereby qualifying earthquakes as one of the major consumers for disaster relief funds from 1964 to the present.

The progressive increase of major earthquakes is unquestionable, especially from 1960 to the present. Just to drive home the impact, almost three hundred major quakes have hit throughout the world since 1905, killing two million people, and leaving another seven and one-half million homeless. These quakes impacted another twenty million people (either injuries or property damage).

Geophysicists have calculated a further period of “earthquake clustering” to be anticipated in key centers of population and industry in Western North America. In some cases, we can anticipate high degrees of destructive energy releases similar to the 1964 Alaska earthquake, which had the energy equivalent to 12,000 atom bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima during World War II!

As a reaction to these disasters, emergency preparedness planners in the west have pooled together their efforts to prepare guidelines and exercises in anticipation of future earthquake scenarios.


The first major step that Government agencies in the west have taken is the identification of structural and non-structural earthquake hazards. Inventories of certain types of buildings which prove vulnerable to even moderate earthquakes have been initiated at both the private and public levels. Unsafe building design, pre-cast concrete structures, and unreinforced masonry buildings have all performed badly during low to moderate levels of seismic activity. Upgrading building standards will continue to be a high priority based on what we have learned from the types of damage caused during the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, and the numerous California quakes of the past decade.

Non-structural contents within buildings have proven to be quite dangerous during a seismic event. Furniture, overhead lighting fixtures, and business equipment have been a major cause of injuries. Local governments and private industry are being encouraged to anchor heavy equipment, use safety glass on windows, and formulate a bracing system for furniture. Voluntary efforts to increase safety continues as businesses develop guidelines for securing potentially hazardous materials.

Second, in our process for upgrading emergency preparedness is the development of plans for government and public response. Plan development has become more pronounced in the last decade regarding earthquakes. One of the most useful tools is the Multihazard Functional Planning Guidance developed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. This document provides guidelines to help local governments formulate their own plans for earthquake and other important emergency response. Reviewing potential hazards is the fundamental first step recommended to decision makers, after which assessing risks and categorizing resources are given a strong emphasis.

As this plan was being considered, those officials in authority over emergency services functions coordinated the different departments and personnel into a planning team. Within the Office of Emergency Services, this team established an emergency action checklist for responding to moderate/major earthquakes. As an example, key elements of the rescue checklist include:

  • Mobilizing available public and private rescue personnel and equipment.
  • Organize Rescue Teams.
  • Assign teams to areas according to established priorities.
  • Detail communications and reporting procedures.
  • Assign Mutual Aid resources arriving from other jurisdictions.
  • Recruit Volunteers.
  • Monitor rescue resources teams’s activities.
  • Coordinate with Medical/Health and Coroner Coordinators on care of injured and collection of fatalities.
  • Other checklists within the guidance plan for earthquake preparedness and response include:
    Managing emergency operations.
  • Fire and rescue operations.
  • Law enforcement and traffic control operations.
  • Medical operations
  • Public health operations.
  • Coroner operations
  • Care and Shelter operations.
  • Construction and engineering operations.
  • Resources and support operations.

Third, an essential segment of our emergency operations is specialized training for emergency responders. Since 1971, emergency management courses have been offered through the California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI) and other organizations throughout the west, focusing on the consequences of major earthquakes. As an example, the CSTI earthquake course gives an accurate understanding of the requirements and limitations that cities in North America could have in responding to a large scale earthquake. The key element for all quake-related courses is development of a disaster response management organization. Other components for earthquake training include the development of a functional emergency operations center where localized risk assessment and analysis in the preparedness planning phase can be coordinated.

Fourth, we continue our efforts to prepare for post-earthquake recovery. Once the shaking stops, recovery activities begin with building safety inspection. Earthquakes in California have taught us to conduct a preliminary assessment of damage to affected areas so that an estimate of economic loss can be proclaimed to local agencies, thereby allowing for aid to flow into impacted areas. Another important purpose for immediate inspection is for us to determine if structures are safe to be occupied. Critical facilities and essential buildings must be inspected quickly, such as hospitals, schools, government offices, along with fire and police offices. With little time to lose, inspectors and structural engineers conduct safety inspections of residential, industrial, and commercial facilities. After a basic inspection, there is an effort made to restore water, gas, electricity, telephones, sewer lines, and other residential services. Maintenance crews and service vehicles are prepared to go into service on short notice as they did during the California Whittier Narrows earthquake in October of 1987. Services were restored where possible and alternate resources were brought into play from both inside and outside the stricken area. Part of these resources included equipment for debris removal. Since emergency vehicles must have quick access to assist victims, a coordinated plan to remove rubble from streets becomes an important part of the recovery operation.

Though much has been accomplished, we can truly say that only the tip of the iceberg has been touched concerning our preparation for earthquakes. Our main emphasis now must be on the development of legislative changes, further preparation of disaster plans, and periodic evaluations of existing programs. Those of us involved with emergency preparedness are working more closely with private industry to change building codes and upgrade construction standards. Working with government agencies, we strive to activate new policies towards land-use planning. Hopefully, our concern and effort for providing the public with a means of coping with future earthquake-related damage will be more evident as we prepare today for tomorrow’s emergency.

This article was written by Dr. Vincent Montane who is Regional Director for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in California.

This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 19.