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Staying Safe During an Earthquake

A magnitude 3.9 earthquake shook western Jamaica at 6:10 a.m. on Sunday, February 10, 2013. The epicenter was located in Darliston, Westmoreland, 29 kilometers south-southwest of Montego Bay and 130 kilometers west of Kingston. No injuries or damages were reported.

The rumbling lasted just a few seconds. Was that an earthquake, I wondered. I shook my head to reject the thought and calm the panic that suddenly tightened my chest when I realized I couldn’t remember the earthquake survival lessons I’d learned when I was little.

As I tried desperately to remember what to do, another, less insistent sound rippled through the stillness of the morning. There was no doubt now; it was an earthquake. Thankfully, it wasn’t strong enough but what if that had been an earthquake?

Going from one room to the next, I took a good look at the doorway I had just passed through – standing in the doorway was the only thing that finally came to mind. It appeared solid enough to my untrained eye, but would it have been able to withstand thousands of pounds of concrete? I didn’t want to wait for an earthquake to be sure. I had to devise a plan, so I went online.

If you live in Jamaica or another Caribbean island, the thing that’s uppermost in your mind is a hurricane. There’s even a rhyme that we all learn: June, too soon. July, stand by. August, you must! September, remember. October, all over. that describes what to do during the five critical months of the season.

But although Jamaica is in an active seismic zone and experiences up to 200 tremors annually there’s no such reminder for earthquakes. Jamaica has had a long history with earthquakes. It recorded its first in 1687 and evidence of its most devastating, in 1692, remain to this day. In that event, Port Royal was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that submerged two-thirds of the city. Nearly 3,000 souls were lost.

Prior to this year, the last earthquake hit the center of the island in 2005 and caused minor damage. Following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, it was reported that geologist predicted it but were unsure whether Haiti or Jamaica would have been affected as both countries are on the same fault line.

So what should you do if an earthquake hits while you’re traveling?

  • First and most importantly, don’t panic.
  • Drop to the ground and take cover. Get under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture and hold on until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a sturdy table nearby, crouch inside the corner of your room or building and cover your face and head with your arms.
  • Move away from glass windows and doors and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, heavy mirrors, bookcases, hanging plants or other heavy objects.
  • If you’re in bed when the earthquake strikes, protect your head with a pillow and stay clear of anything that could fall or break.
  • Seek shelter in a doorway, if you’re nearby and if you know that it is strongly supported. Stay on the hinged side to avoid it swinging and hitting you.
  • Remain indoors until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Most injuries occur when people enter or exit or move to a different location inside a building.
  • Don’t use candles or matches or other open flame during or after the earthquake as there might be ruptured gas mains.
  • Electricity may be off so fire alarms, for example, may be off or won’t work.
  • Do not use elevators or you might become trapped.
  • If you’re in a hotel, stay in your room. Shelter under a sturdy table or desk and hold on.
  • If you’re in a restaurant, get under the table.
  • If you’re outside, stay there but be sure you’re not close to buildings, streetlights, utility poles, utility wires, or trees. Drop to the ground and cover your head and face with your arms. Remain until the shaking stops.
  • If you’re in a moving vehicle, stop as safety permits but stay in the vehicle. Avoid parking near or under buildings, trees, overpasses or utility wires. Once the earthquake has stopped, proceed cautiously but stay clear of roads, bridges and ramps that might have been damaged by the earthquake.

There are a few precautions you can take when you travel that will help put your mind at ease whether there’s a disaster or a power cut.

  • Pack a battery operated or crank radio so that if the electricity goes out, you’ll still be able to get information.
  • Carry an LED flashlight in case the power goes out.
  • Pack snacks like trail mix, nuts, etc., in case you can’t get food for a while.
  • After an earthquake, water might not be drinkable. It’s good to iodine tablets handy but if you don’t have those, stick to bottled water. Make sure there are a few bottles in your hotel room and rental car, if you have one.
  • If your hotel is near the sea, check with the hotel staff about their evacuation plan and make sure you know how to get above the ground floor or other designated ‘safe’ area.
  • If you’re traveling with others, decide on a meeting point and make sure everyone in your party can find it. Also designate someone back home to be your contact person.

Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes strike without warning but having a plan in place can mitigate some of the stress they can cause.

Do you have an emergency travel plan?