UCSF IS MOVING: Advice to new and old students alike about earthquake preparedness

School of Medicine

True or false: “I don’t have to worry about preparing my home for earthquakes because I’m a student, and I’m only going to be here for a few years.”

Translation: “Earthquakes don’t occur while I’m a student.”

Ok, future scientists/clinicians, let’s evaluate that hypothesis and its corollary, “Earthquakes don’t occur when anyone is a student.” Therefore, because earthquakes occur with regularity in the Bay Area, “Nobody is ever a student.”

I probably don’t have to hit you over the head any heavier than that, but I will point out that during the destructive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, I was a grad student at Stanford!  Once the quake occurred, I was no different from anyone else in that I had to assess damage at home and in my lab.

Fortunately, there was no damage in my home, even though my housemates and I had not taken earthquake preparedness measures, and the only damage in my lab was that something fell on the keyboard of the lab’s Mac (yeah, in the late 80’s, we had “the lab computer”) and ruined the E key, making it impossible to type “Eureka!” and therefore impeding scientific progress and discovery. However, we lucked out; thousands of people were injured with 62 fatalities, and many more had moderate to considerable damage inside their homes.


Welcome to San Francisco...but I mean that sincerely, not facetiously, because most of the problems experienced by people in California earthquakes in the past 100 years have been preventable by taking certain precautions, many of which are not that hard to do. People just don’t get around to them, and so when even moderate events like last month’s Napa quake occur, you end up with lots of people in the vicinity with substantial damage in their homes that simply would not have occurred if they had taken the recommended precautions for life in the Bay Area. Although city governments are trying to make structures safer, when “the Big One” comes, even a home that isn’t structurally damaged will contain a lot of damaged possessions unless you have taken your own preventative measures.


Here is some quick “starter” advice for those who aren’t familiar with earthquake safety and for those who have only heard the myths. These are easy and don’t require a bunch of precautions:

1) Don’t hang heavy framed pictures over the head of your bed (and don’t have anything unfastened that could fall over onto the head of your bed).

2) If you are inside during a large quake, know the following:

  • DON’T run out of the building (into the danger zone next to the building where most injuries occur),
  • DON’T get next to something thinking it will protect you (despite what you may have read in a notorious e-mail chain letter), 
  • DON’T brace yourself in a doorway (despite what you may have learned as a kid),
  • DO get under something sturdy and hang onto it to ensure it remains over you throughout the quake.

3) Other precautions you should take to substantially cut down your risk of being injured the next time two parts of the Bay Area try to move in different directions include: 

  • Brace tall furniture to the wall
  • Have enough food, water, and other necessary supplies to enable you to be self-sufficient for at least 7 days.

Of course, there are more ways in which you can prepare. Since 2008, I’ve given talks about home earthquake preparedness at UCSF and to the public at SF Public Library branches. The next regular cycle of UCSF talks will take place during the first half of 2015. Videos from previous events are also available on my website. Keep your eye on the talk schedule and the streaming video resources using links available at http://cardiolab.ucsf.edu/molcardiolab/earthquake.html. (Streaming video of an updated version of the talk from a few weeks ago will be available on the website in late September, replacing the 2010 version currently there.)

You can read even more at my blog, http://quaketips.blogspot.com. I post articles about how to do things, why some things should not be done, does bottled water really expire, etc. Here’s an excerpt from one of the first articles:

“Those in other parts of the country might say that at least they have advance warning about the hurricanes, etc… We DO have advance warning about earthquakes; we just have it much farther in advance than for other disasters...so, there's going to be an earthquake, do something about it. There, you've been warned!”