04/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Be Prepared, Not Scared

I felt my first earthquake when I was in the shower--one of those plastic modular showers that my plasterboard-walled studio apartment offered in its tiny bathroom. I'd finally made it to LA--city of my dreams, and was working in TV. I could wait for the mansion in Beverly Hills (still waiting, BTW...)--just being in Hollywood meant a lifelong ambition had been achieved. A naïve tourist--I'd asked my producer, a lifelong Angeleno, what earthquakes felt like--her description, like walking on the moving floorboards of a beachfront amusement park ride, made me naively eager to earn my own earthquake stripes.

The hot water falling on the plastic under my feet resonated with a low buzz. I swore that someday I would at least upgrade to a home with bathing porcelain. A peculiar sensation suddenly rose up from my toes, a rhythmical bouncing pressure stronger than--EARTHQUAKE! I jumped out of the shower and raced to the sturdiest door I could find--my front door out to the hallway of my building--and braced myself in the doorjamb.

Across the hall, the door opened, and my neighbor from across the hall appeared in her doorway, screaming, her hair wrapped in a towel and her trembling hands tying the belt of her bathrobe. My friend continued to scream in sync with each wave of the quake. As a doctor, I immediately put on my professional demeanor and attempted to stay calm and reassuring, trying to softly talk her through the shaking and rolling which seemed to go on for an eternity. In between the rolls, she would seem calmer for a moment, and ask me if there was anything she could do for me. I interpreted her puzzling question as a good sign that she had not completely lost control, and continued to send calming smiles and reassurances that we'd both be fine her way. It was only after the earthquake had passed, and we had both gratefully caught our breaths, that I realized why she had been asking after my own welfare. I looked down, and saw that, in my haste to "run to safety", I had neglected to grab a towel -or anything else--to hide behind as I stood facing the hall. Oops.

The Whittier Narrows Earthquake was fortunately relatively mild, a 5.9, but it still tragically resulted in a few deaths in the Los Angeles area. Had the seismic direction of fate been different, our attempts to stay safe in the doorways of our homes might have been futile, and certainly at least ill-advised. Today, as a leader of our health center's emergency preparedness team, and a much more experienced Angeleno , I know now that running to the door is bad advice, and instead repeat and teach the mantra, "Duck, Cover, and Hold."

Scientists tell us that we are overdue for a major earthquake in the Los Angeles area, but we are not the only region at risk. Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, the Heartland, and even the East Coast could witness sizable, damaging quakes in the years to come. I hope and pray that if the ground shakes, we all stay safe and uninjured--being prepared can go a long way towards preventing both panic and unnecessary injury or death. The following are some helpful tips that we can do to better position ourselves in case of a shaker:

Before the earthquake:

  • Stock up on non-perishable water and food for your entire family or your location to last at least 72 hours, and, if possible, up to two weeks. LA's 6.8 Northridge quake in '94 devastated some neighborhoods, but spared others--which could then help provide assistance and resources to the most severely affected areas. A larger quake could compromise a much wider area--you could be on your own for a couple of days or more, without clean water, power, or food. Supplies should be stored in an easily accessible location, preferably outside a main building that could suffer damage in a quake. You should also have a first-aid kit for home treatment of, hopefully, minor injuries. Additionally, consider a tent and blankets and sleeping bags to use outdoors if shelters are unavailable and your home becomes questionably safe.
  • Survey your home and work environments to ensure that they are earthquake safe. Houses should be bolted to their foundations, and natural gas pipes should be fitted with an automatic shut-off valve. Inside the house, large furniture and equipment should be bolted/strapped to walls, cabinets and drawers should be latched securely, and knickknacks should be "glued" to surfaces with quake putty available from local safety or hardware stores.
  • Work with your children's schools to promote facilities safety, to store supplies and food for your child, and to arrange for supervision until children can be safely picked up in case of a quake.
  • Make a family communications plan, and discuss and rehearse what you might do in case of a quake if you are at home, at school, or at work. Arrange for an out of town friend or relative to serve as a message coordinator to receive long-distance calls and relay messages in case local phone service is disrupted.
  • Keep a pair of firm-soled shoes near your bed to slip into to avoid cuts on broken glass. Keep your immunizations updated (including your tetanus shots at least every 10 years).
  • Keep extra supplies of critical medications on hand in accessible locations--pharmacies or health care facilities may be overwhelmed or unavailable.

During an earthquake:

  • Duck, cover, and hold. Most buildings in California are built to withstand moderate and even large earthquakes. Do not run to the doorjamb or outside. It is safest to duck under a solid wood table or crouch against a free wall, protecting your head with your hands. Hold on to the table for balance if the shaking is severe. Avoid windows, doors, and heavy, unstable, or breakable objects.
  • Quakes in areas without adequate building codes may require a different strategic response. In such cases, escaping an unsafe building or hiding in a "zone of safety", i.e. a space between protective objects have been proposed as options to promote survival.

After an earthquake:

  • Check for injuries, including your own.
  • Assist those with injuries needing immediate attention, and call out or send someone for help if the care needed is beyond your scope. I heartily recommend that those interested take CERT training (Community Emergency Response Teams) in advance of disasters--the course is an excellent way to learn first aid, triage, assistance and recovery skills that can be helpful to you, your family, and your community.
  • Evacuate unstable environments as quickly and safely as possible. Aftershocks can come quickly and be severe and damaging. Do not return to an unstable environment until it has been safely cleared.
  • Open cabinets carefully so shifted contents do not fall on you.
  • Turn off the gas at the outside main valve, especially if you smell a leak. Shut off the water if it is leaking, and check for damage to electrical systems--you can shut off electricity at a fuse box or circuit breaker--but do not attempt any electrical shutoff if you have to step in water to reach the switch.
  • Avoid using the telephone unless absolutely necessary. Depending on the array of damage, both landlines and cell phone towers may have operational deficits--calls should be reserved for life-saving emergencies (e.g . 911). If necessary, limit calls to your out of town pre-arranged contact who can then relay your condition to other distant friends and relatives, as well as to those locally who are unable to reach you--then stay off the phone.
  • Follow instructions provided by emergency response or public safety professionals--including evacuation to safe shelters if needed. If you do remain close to your home outdoors, stay away from poles, trees, electrical wires, or buildings and structures that could fall or throw off dangerous projectiles. Coastal residents or tourists should heed tsunami warnings.

For additional tips, you can check out:

We all hope that earthquakes will be few, far between, and small--however, these tips can help you be better prepared, and not scared if a big one strikes. As I watch with sadness the consequences of Mother Earth's seismic seizures around the world, I pray for a quick recovery for those affected and health and safety for us all.