Education Opinion

The Need for Earthquake Education

By Katharyn E. K. Ross — May 30, 1990 5 min read

Imagine the following scene: A teacher stands at the blackboard, once more explaining the details of long division to her class. Suddenly, there is a violent shaking. Children scream and run. Large shards of glass streak across the room. Fluorescent light fixtures crash to the floor. The tall bookshelves in the corner rock back and forth, their heavy contents showering the children nearest them. When the shaking stops, children are cowering in different corners of the room. Some of them don’t move.

The cause of the shaking? An earthquake. The setting, of course, is California, right? Not necessarily. In fact, all 50 states are susceptible to earthquakes, and at least 39 are subject to moderate or major seismic risk: A large portion of the nation’s population lives in areas vulnerable to earthquake hazards.

Educators who were not aware of the dimensions of this risk probably also do not know what to do when an earthquake strikes. And if they don’t know what to do, then their students probably don’t, either. Fortunately, no damaging earthquake has recently taken place during school hours in this country. But it is only a matter of time before schoolchildren somewhere in the United States are subjected to this frightening experience. To reduce the threat to lives and property, schools should place increased emphasis on earthquake preparedness.

On a number of occasions in the past, earthquakes have damaged American schools. In 1933, the John Muir School in Long Beach, Calif, collapsed. Two years later, the west wing of a new high school in Helena, Mont., was destroyed in an earthquake; this structure had a reinforced concrete frame and roof, and its tile floors were faced with brick. During a 1964 earthquake, an elementary school in Anchorage split in two.

In May 1983, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Coalinga, Calif; an aftershock measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. A subsequent report noted nonstructura1 damage to the San Bernardino County schools. About 1,000 fluorescent light bulbs full from fixtures and broke. Improperly installed T-bar ceilings full, as well as glued ceiling tiles.

Water pipes located in the basement of a high school were broken, causing flooding and stopping the electrical supply when switching mechanisms were damaged by the water. In the school’s second-floor chemistry lab, bottles of sulfuric acid and other chemicals fell and broke. Acid burned through to the first floor. Because there was no electrical power to drive the ventilating system, poisonous fumes filled the building. The district’s superintendent, Charles S. Terrell Jr., feels that death and serious injury would have resulted, had school been in session.

Damage to buildings and nonstructura1 hazards are not our only consideration: Educators should be concerned that many children and teachers do not know what to do in an earthquake. In one preliminary study, only 9 percent of the K-6 students who were interviewed gave clearly correct answers to questions about such an emergency. After last October’s Loma Prieta earthquake, some 4th graders in a school outside of California wrote the following:

“If an earthquake came, I would hurry up and go to the store and get some food and go back home and go in the basement and stay there.”

“If there was an earthquake, I would go to the airport and get on the airplane and go to New York City and stay. I would go buy me a gun.” A 1988 survey of state education departments conducted by the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research indicated that only two states--California and Arkansas--included earthquake education in their guidelines. In some others, information about earthquakes might be included in general-science or earth-science classes, or in schools’ disaster plans. In Idaho, a project developing seismic safety standards for state schools has been completed and is now being considered by the state board. This study incorporated three aspects: evaluation of the seismic hazard in the state from a geological viewpoint; assessment of school buildings’ vulnerability; and establishment of a school-based disaster- preparedness program.

A recent update of this survey revealed some promising developments. The publication Earthquakes: A Teacher’s Package for K- 6, written jointly by the National Science Teachers Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been distributed to schools. In Missouri, two bills concerning earthquake preparedness are pending in the General Assembly. One proposal would mandate an earthquake emergency- procedure system in every school; the other would require all new construction or major renovation of buildings to conform to the most current seismic design codes specified by the International Conference of Building Officials.

What exactly is earthquake education? Sound programs blend teaching about the science of plate tectonics and emergency preparedness. Too often, earth-science lessons address the former but not the latter topic.

Elements of an earthquake-preparedness program would include not only teaching children such procedures as using their desks to protect themselves, but also improving building safety, through, for example, the use of retaining boards on bookcases and special adhesives on window glass.

In addition, the science lessons themselves need to be carefully scrutinized to uncover potential misperceptions by children. Interviews with elementary-school children indicate that some confuse earthquakes with volcanoes or tornadoes. Some students state that earthquakes are caused by thunder, the heat of the sun on the earth, wind, drilling in sidewalks, or too much noise.

The National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research-devoted to developing knowledge about earthquakes, improving earthquake-resistant design, and implementing hazard-mitigation procedures- works actively with schools to formulate effective instructional strategies. Presently, the center is co-sponsoring earthquake-education workshops throughout the country.

But such efforts are not enough. Strong education programs and communities of informed individuals are needed to make schools safe in the event of an earthquake.

As educators, we have the responsibility for providing a safe environment for students. What will we tell them as they lie in the rubble of their school in the aftermath of a major earthquake? That we couldn’t fit earthquake education in the curriculum? That earthquakes rarely occur? That developing a program was too costly?

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1990 edition of Education Week