Damage Control

October 01, 1997 3 min read

If a severe earthquake were to strike near her one-room school in rural Montana, teacher Kerry Graybeal knows that it would be hours--possibly days--before anyone could reach her and her nine students. With that in mind, she and 13 other teachers spent part of their summer vacations learning earthquake safety from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Through a little-known program, FEMA brings dozens of teachers each summer to its training facility in Emmitsburg, Maryland, about 70 miles outside Washington, D.C., for weeklong seminars aimed at increasing awareness of earthquakes and other hazards.

Because Montana is one of 41 states in a moderate- or high-risk earthquake zone, “our superintendent wants all the rural schools to be ready to take care of themselves,” Graybeal says. “In a high earthquake zone, it’s always in the back of your mind that you should be ready, and I know we’re not.”

FEMA’s goal is to help teachers help their schools prepare for natural disasters. Training is aimed at a broad cross section of schools, not just those in well-known earthquake areas, and the lessons apply to a variety of disaster circumstances.

For More Information

For more information, contact Dawn Warehime at FEMA, National Emergency Training Center, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727, or call (301)447-1309 or e-mail

The five-day program that Graybeal attended begins with background science on earthquakes taught by staff seismologists who use peanut butter and jelly on slices of bread to represent layers of the earth. Part of the idea, project officials say, is to expose teachers to hands-on exercises they can use back home with their students. The course shows teachers how to make their classrooms safer and how to prepare emergency disaster plans. It also touches on counseling and art-therapy techniques for disaster survivors.

FEMA offers two classes on earthquake safety, one for K-6 teachers and the other for middle and high school teachers. Another summer course, the “multihazard class,” shows teachers and other school personnel how to react to a wide range of emergency situations, anything from student violence to a swarm of killer bees.

FEMA pays for participants’ airfares and provides accommodations at the training facility’s dormitory, but school districts must pay for meals and other related expenses. Applicants must obtain permission from local school officials and pledge to share what they learn with their colleagues back home.

Dawn Warehime, the program’s director, worries that many schools have insufficient or outdated disaster plans. Some educators, she says, may not even realize they live in a high-risk zone. Warehime believes that all schools, even those in low-risk areas, should educate their students about the causes and effects of earthquakes because many students could move to or visit a high-risk area at some point in their lives. Learning about earthquakes and other natural disasters demystifies them and can make children less fearful.

Second grade teachers Lisa Cohen and Katherine Strach, say their first order of business upon returning home to the San Francisco Bay area will be talking to local school administrators about drawing up better disaster plans. After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, many students were upset when they returned to school, Cohen says. But teachers were not prepared to deal with those emotions. “We just came back and didn’t have any special instructions about how to act, what to say to the kids,” she says.

“We have tons and tons of supplies,” Strach adds, “but we’re not really prepared.”

--Joetta L. Sack