California Earthquakes And The Immigrants That Run Outside

Freeway damaged by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake

More than 1,000 earthquakes have shaken Southern California so far this year. The bulk of those quakes came after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook Southern California on April 4. The epicenter was 40 miles south of Calexico, California, (in Baja California) but the jolt was felt all the way up to Santa Barbara, 95 miles north of Los Angeles.

The recent earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile had Californians already on edge as talk of the “Big One” has intensified over the last couple of years. This “Big One” is a major earthquake that seismologists predict will emanate from the San Andreas fault and cause billions of dollars in damage and a substantial number of deaths. Some predict the Big One will be a 7 magnitude earthquake, others estimate that it will be as powerful as an 8+ magnitude jolt.

Millions of dollars have been spent in practice drills to get Californians ready for the Big One. The most recognized of the drills is The Great California ShakeOut, which usually takes place in October. Last year over 6.9 million Californians participated in the drill. But the majority of Californians still take preparing for granted, failing to store water and food for such a catastrophe.

Advocates for earthquake preparedness are using what happened in Haiti and in Chile as a way to get Californians to contemplate similar scenarios in Southern California. Of course, the damage to buildings in Los Angeles, for example wouldn’t be as devastating as Haiti, but like Port-au-Prince, many areas in Los Angeles have dense populations which could lead to many deaths.


The Los Angeles downtown area of Westlake — a district made up of mostly Central American immigrants — has a density of over 38,200 people per mile. Westlake has seen its share of gentrification over the years, but the old buildings and homes are still predominant in that lower income part of the city.

Many of the immigrants living in Westlake come from countries in the Pacific Ring of Fire — the seismic 40,000 kilometer horseshoe that has hundreds of active volcanoes and a history for violent earthquake activity. These immigrants only know one thing when a earthquake strikes: run outside, which in California is the biggest no-no.

People exiting the McArthur Park Metro Station in Westlake

The earthquake in Baja California last week had only two deaths (some sources say four), but two of those deaths happened because the victims tried or ran outside during the earthquake. One of the victims was an older male, his house collapsed. The other victim was a man who run outside of his house so fast, he got hit by a car on the street. Running outside during an earthquake comes naturally to all of us, not just to folks in developing countries, but the difference is that in California for example, running outside would do more harm than good.

In developing countries, construction codes are much weaker than in industrialized countries like the United States. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, construction codes were almost non-existent: four pages total. Buildings and homes alike were poorly built — no concrete, no iron, no architect or engineer to oversee the projects. Even the fancy Montana Hotel, where rich people stayed during visits to the island, collapsed during the earthquake. The final death toll in Haiti is over 230,000 and the damage to homes, buildings and infrastructure is in the billions of dollars.

Countries like Mexico have stronger building codes, but usually the poor people are the ones resorting to building their homes from whatever materials they can find. In El Salvador, for example, where earthquakes can be as powerful as 7+ in magnitude, people still build homes made of “barajeque” — usually a combination of mud and straw with bamboo or other type of wood sticks to reinforce the walls. During earthquakes those are the first homes that collapse and because the people who build them know this, they run quickly out of their homes.

In the dense Westlake district of Los Angeles, the Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants outnumber those immigrants from Mexico or anywhere else. Making sure that they know the appropriate thing to do when an earthquake hits in Southern California will save lives, but right now, by default, what they have been programmed to do is run outside.


According to a lecture by USGS’ seismologist Lucy Jones at the Pasadena Community College last May, the majority of injuries and deaths tend to happen after an earthquake. When people run outside, they become victims of falling debris — loose glass, objects, etc. There could be live electrical wires on the ground and other dangers that can cause deaths.

It’s safer to be indoors during an earthquake in California by doing these three simple things: drop, cover, and hold on. Because construction codes are better in the US, specially in California where building codes are made to minimize earthquake damage, the chances that a home or building will collapse is lower. The real danger is all that sharp, broken glass from windows above or that 15-foot tall neon “Liquor” sign outside of a store.

“Drop, cover, and hold on” is one of the things that children learn at school in Southern California. They do the drill a few times a year and the they tend to be very good at it. But for the immigrant parents of these children who may not speak English very well, the impulse of running outside would override what the kids have learned if an earthquake struck.

Indeed, efforts are being made to make sure non-English speakers learn about “drop, cover, and hold on” but perhaps a Spanish version of the Great California ShakeOut’s website is not enough. Reaching these immigrants through ad campaigns on Spanish TV and radio would help, but more ideas need to be explored in order to save these lives.

California is known for being a melting pot of immigrants from different nations, many languages are spoken in the state and the government has done an good job providing services for these diverse communities. Yet, emergency preparedness is an area that requires ALL Californians to pay closer attention. Even in the middle of a budgetary crisis in the state, emergency preparedness for the “Big One” will require more resources in order to do a better job reaching out to all communities.

Follow Dolores M. Bernal of Twitter.


One Response to California Earthquakes And The Immigrants That Run Outside

  1. Vote -1 Vote +1Sam
    April 13, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    I have a hard time believing stop, drop and hold on. What if I’m right next to the door when the quake hits? And outside my door there are hundreds of yards of open space. I think stop drop and hold on is only for millionaires who have 20 bedroom houses.

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