Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Experience an earthquake! And then go see the ostrich chicks and have lunch.

About a week ago, I and about 14 other people experienced two earthquakes in a row; and then another ~15 people experienced them about 10 minutes later, and it continued that way all afternoon.  Micro-aftershocks?  No, it was the new Earthquake exhibit at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, where they have a “shake house” that first simulates the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and then simulates the 1906 San Francisco quake.  That was a fascinating experience for me, because when I felt the real 1989 quake, I was outdoors, which is a very different experience; and when I went through the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, I was a little boy in my bed, and was more bounced around than shaken.  Standing on the floor and having the walls shake and the floor rock and shift certainly does feel different.

While experiencing these simulations, a few things occurred to me.  First, the books didn’t fall off the shelves, the picture didn't crash down to the ground, the fishbowl did not slide off the shelf, the cabinet doors did not swing open, and the glasses did not break all over the floor.  That was because this was an exhibit rather than a real home and everything was fastened; which is a great example of why in your real home, it’s a good idea to have everything fastened!  Second, it sure is useful for the kitchen to have a hand-rail with capacity for ~15 people to hold on to it, and to have advance warning; but of course those exhibit features presumably will NOT make it into your real home.  And lastly, and this will be more meaningful to actual San Franciscans, the view out the fake window from this shake house of the famous “Painted Ladies” Victorian houses seems to put the location of this hypothetical house right in the middle of Alamo Square Park...but we’ll let that one slide.

One more thing that occurred to me is that experiencing the feel of these quakes is good preparation for the real thing.  It is hard to respond effectively to the unfamiliar; easier if you have already gone over in your mind the sounds and sensations that you will probably experience.  Amanda Ripley, in her truly excellent and gripping book “The Unthinkable,” describes various real disasters and discusses how the simple act of knowing what you will do before the unexpected occurs can make a crucial difference in the outcome.   I imagine that not just knowing what you will do, but also knowing what you will likely be experiencing, will help save those extra few seconds that are better spent responding than freezing like a deer in the headlights.

Other nice aspects of this exhibit were the planetarium show in which you can see cool simulations of the continents drifting, fly through the San Andreas Fault, and be part of a very realistic CGI simulation of San Francisco’s Market Street in the early morning as the 1906 quake was hitting; and also the real live ostrich chicks running around in the pen as an example of the speciation that has occurred due to tectonic plate movement.

I’m glad I finally got the chance to attend this Earthquake exhibit, especially since one of my recent earthquake preparedness talks was at the SF Main Library in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences itself, so I was part of their lecture program associated with this exhibit.  Presumably I was not as cute as the ostrich chicks but I’m glad to have been able to contribute a bit to the effort!

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