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Earthquake Survival: Is Taking Cover the Safest Strategy?

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The recent events in Haiti and Japan showed us that earthquakes are something we should all be prepared for—and are far from being just a “West Coast thing.” According to FEMA, thirty-nine states are at risk of a moderate to severe quake. Besides the usual suspects, like California, Oregon, and Washington, that list also includes Montana, Idaho, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri.


The survival strategy that the Red Cross, FEMA, and the United States Geological Survey endorse is the Drop, Cover, and Hold On method, where a person takes cover underneath the nearest large object and holds on until the shaking stops. But a competing viewpoint on earthquake survival—called the Triangle of Life—is making the rounds in people’s email inboxes and on the Internet. What’s the full story on this theory, and should it affect how you plan and prepare for disasters?


Finding the Right Angles
The Triangle of Life is a theory perpetuated by Doug Copp, an independent and for-profit rescue specialist. He claims that in his decades of search-and-rescue experience, he’s found that people who simply duck and cover get crushed to death, and that only by practicing his method can they survive a major earthquake. He explains that instead of seeking cover underneath large objects, people can stay alive by seeking out the triangle-shaped voids that exist next to them. Instead of getting under a desk, for example, Copp recommends crouching beside it, and rather than crawling underneath a bed, Copp urges people to curl up next to it.


This theory has been subject to serious and continued criticism by reputable disaster-relief professionals, but it remains popular online. “It pops up every time we have a large international earthquake,” says Emily White, director of preparedness for the Red Cross Bay Area. Trusted experts say the theory is false. “Its most egregious claim is that structures around the world will respond to an earthquake in the exact same way,” says White. In fact, not a single U.S. government agency or disaster-relief organization endorses Copp’s findings, and Copp himself is not affiliated with any certified agency or government entity.


The Triangle of Life presupposes that all buildings collapse in an earthquake, but that’s simply not true. In America, new buildings are constructed so that they can withstand seismic activity, and old buildings erected before we amassed our current body of knowledge of earthquakes are often retrofitted to provide extra protection. These building codes make a total collapse highly unlikely. For example, near the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in Northern California, which was about the same magnitude as the recent Haitian quake, only forty buildings collapsed—out of thousands—and none exhibited the kind of flattened “pancaking” Copp foretold.


In countries where the majority of buildings are made from brick, mud, or adobe, and where there is no uniform code for structural soundness, there will likely be more collapses and more loss of life. Copp formulated the Triangle of Life theory in Turkey, but even in that disaster, it was estimated that only 3 percent of buildings experienced partial collapses. Not only have critics slammed Copp for misleading the public by showing pictures of one building that collapsed amid thousands more that didn’t, but they have also questioned Copp’s credentials and credibility. Comparing disaster preparedness in the industrialized United States with disasters in Turkey, Haiti, or rural China is like comparing apples and oranges. “You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” says White. “We don’t build things the same way.”


Watch Out for Falling Objects
Another thing that the Triangle of Life doesn’t mention is that the overwhelming majority of injuries during a quake don’t happen during a building collapse; they’re typically caused by falling debris and by people’s trying to move more than a few feet. “In an earthquake, the most important thing to do is to cover your head,” says White, “and the Triangle of Life can actually hurt more than harm because it leaves you exposed.” The Red Cross recommends getting underneath heavy objects to protect your head and neck, as with the Drop, Cover, and Hold On method. Earthquakes can shake loose light fixtures, tiles, or furniture, so getting underneath a desk or table is the best way to protect yourself.


It’s also important to stay put, says White. Wherever you are when an earthquake hits, stay in the immediate vicinity and seek cover underneath the nearest heavy object. “The only time to move is if you’re standing immediately outside a building,” says White. Falling eaves, shutters, bricks, and other debris pose serious danger, so it’s best to get inside, where you can Drop, Cover, and Hold On.


Go with the Pros
Some of Copp’s advice has merit—crouch in the fetal position, and don’t go onto staircases. However, the rest of his theory assumes not only that all buildings collapse in all earthquakes, but also that all buildings are built the same everywhere. At best, the Triangle of Life theory is unwieldy because most people are not capable of making split-second geometric calculations or anticipating the location and size of life-sustaining voids. At worst, by encouraging people to crouch in the open, it leaves people vulnerable to injuries from falling objects, shifting furniture, and other debris. Ultimately, if you receive an email about the Triangle of Life, you should take it about as seriously as you take any unsolicited and unsubstantiated email forward. The Red Cross makes no representations about this method’s effectiveness in other countries, but in America, Drop, Cover, and Hold On is the gold standard, and it’s endorsed by FEMA and the United States Geological Survey.


The American Red Cross offers recommendations for the United States only and makes no attempt to advise those in other countries. However, Drop, Cover, and Hold On has been proven to save lives in disasters, and because of people’s using this survival method, earthquakes in the United States are far less deadly than those in other countries. The death toll estimates from the recent Haitian quake are close to two hundred thousand, while the Loma Prieta quake killed sixty-three people.

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