Last night I attended a Public Series lecture at the USGS titled “Science for a Dangerous Planet.”  David Applegate, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards at the USGS, gave the talk.  While I had hoped he would discuss a broad set of geologic hazards, he focused mainly on the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Mexico, and tied them into what actions we can take as a result of those events.

The first step is infrastructure.  Because we can’t predict earthquakes, our best line of defense is to respond appropriately.  That includes preventive measures like stricter building codes.  In Haiti, nothing was built to withstand an earthquake.  As a result, the devastation was incredible and loss of life reached at least 220,000.  This isn’t the first time an earthquake has happened near Port-Au-Prince, however.  In the late 1700’s the city had to be rebuilt twice.  At that time, building codes were no where near our present day specifications.  There appeared to be no reason to build anything to withstand intense shaking either, as the seismic activity in that area had been relatively quiet since 1770.  Economics probably factored into the equation as well.

Nearly a month after the earthquakes in Haiti, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake occurred offshore Maule, Chile, an order of magnitude less than the first one that struck Haiti.  The devastation in Chile, however, was nominal in comparison to that in Haiti.  The Huffington Post has a good article that covers the reasons why.

Perhaps of more importance to the United States is the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Baja, Mexico on Sunday, April 4, 2010.  The stress released from that earthquake creates tension elsewhere in the fault.  David Applegate addressed the likelihood of an earthquake in California as a result of the Baja earthquake.  True to his prediction, a 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit southern California at 4:53 pm yesterday, just two hours before Dr. Applegate’s lecture.  Perhaps he did not have time to factor that into this talk.

Prior to all this, a campaign called the Shakedown was undertaken in California to educate people about earthquake preparedness.  That is, according to David Applegate, the best defense.  Rather than concentrate on predicting earthquakes, he suggests being able to react appropriately to earthquakes.  Current social media networks are aiding the USGS in getting the word out when an earthquake does occur.  Twitter, for example, has been instrumental in identifying where people are feeling the earthquake on the ground.  The USGS can track tweets to see where, when, and what people felt.  Along with the seismic data they compile, they can then inform the various response agencies, transportation departments, media outlets, and utility companies as to the appropriate measures needed. 

If you want to see what you can do to be prepared for an earthquake you can visit the USGS earthquake hazards website at for more information.  You may also want to check out their instructions on what to have on hand. 

Here are my words of caution, though: They only recommend 1 gallon of water per person for three days.  In the case of the Big One, it’s plausible that people can be without clean drinking water for at least a month.  So how is a 3-day supply going to cut it?  I don’t think it will.  With that in mind, if I lived in an earthquake prone area, I might consider increasing the amount of water I have on hand for emergencies. 

Perhaps that’s sage advice for any type of national emergency or natural disaster.  That, and a pantry full of food that will last you for more than three days.  So, for now, and perhaps until the threat of something catastrophic happening disappears (which is never), I’ll let my husband’s grocery shopping addiction slide, as we have more than adequately stocked our house with provisions.  Not that we live in an earthquake prone region.   And not that our brush with a national emergency hindered us for too long either.

Still, more than a month’s supply of food, though, is a bit much.  Don’t you agree, honey?