Kids at LeConte Elementary School practice their "Drop, cover, and hold" technique during the Great Shakeout. Photo: Daphne White
Kids at LeConte Elementary School practice their ‘Drop, cover, and hold’ technique during the Great Shakeout. Photo: Daphne White
Kids at LeConte Elementary School practice their ‘Drop, cover, and hold’ technique during the Great Shakeout. Photo: Daphne White

The principal did it. The janitor did it. The students did it. At 10:20 a.m. last Thursday, everyone at LeConte Elementary School in Berkeley participated in the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill. They dropped under the nearest table, covered their heads, and held on tight.

The purpose of the annual ShakeOut event is to raise awareness of the need for preparedness and to remind people to practice actual earthquake survival behaviors.

“Your past experience in earthquakes may give you a false sense of safety,” the ShakeOut website notes. “You likely have never experienced the kind of strong earthquake shaking that is possible in much larger earthquakes: sudden and intense back and forth motions of several feet per second will cause the floor or the ground to jerk sideways out from under you, and every unsecured object around you could topple, fall, or become airborne, potentially causing serious injury.”

Read more about disaster preparedness.

Berkeley had 72,000 registered participants in the Great ShakeOut, including the city of Berkeley, UC Berkeley, Berkeley National Lab, Alta Bates, seven schools and 18 neighborhood groups.

“The event gave us an opportunity to test out the Berkeley Emergency Notification System (BENS),” said Dave Brannigan, the Berkeley Fire Department’s assistant chief for special operations. “We don’t get to use the system very often, and it’s a fairly complicated system. The more we practice using it, the better.”

Fire Chief Gil Dong and a member of his staff practice for Great ShakeOut Day.
Fire Chief Gil Dong and a member of his staff practice for Great ShakeOut Day. Photo: Jennifer Lazo

BENS was able to send out 2,231 calls, 800 texts and 2,310 emails within 10-15 minutes of the drill, according to Brannigan. While 10-15 minutes might be a long time in an emergency, all emergency notification systems are limited by the technology, he says. “The system does not have an infinite number of phone lines, so the 2,331 phone calls took several minutes to make. Email and texts are faster, but can be limited by the receiving party’s system.”

While thousands of Berkeley staff and citizens participated in Thursday’s event, the Great ShakeOut serves as a reminder to be better prepared for a major earthquake, Brannigan said. For those to whom “drop, cover, and hold on” is not an ingrained response, it’s important to practice enough times to be able do it instinctively in the midst of the chaos of a real earthquake.

Institutionally, the city of Berkeley is “pretty advanced when it comes to earthquake preparedness, especially for a city our size,” said Brannigan. “We have a very engaged segment of our population participating in Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). The city has over 100 disaster caches and neighborhoods trained in how to use them.” Most of the caches are in the Berkeley Hills, with far fewer in the flats.

In the case of a major earthquake, residents have to understand that the city and aid organizations may not be able to get to them right away, said Brannigan. If water mains break, if gas lines rupture, or the electricity goes out — it’s going to take days if not weeks to bring the infrastructure back. Residents and businesses should have enough water, food and first aid supplies to survive at least five days in their own neighborhoods, he added. They can’t count on outside agencies to get to them immediately. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, it took a week for supplies to reach people.

Being prepared means thinking of all the eventualities and tiniest details ahead of time, said Veronica Valerio, principal at LeConte Elementary.

“Nobody likes to think about these things, but of course it’s a reality,” she said. In order to focus on earthquakes more specifically, her school recently formed a parent emergency preparedness committee to cultivate a “culture of preparedness” at the school.

One of the most important things the school has done is ask parents to add more names to their emergency pick-up permission cards. If both parents are across the Bay Bridge when an earthquake hits, for example, it’s important to have several other people listed who are authorized to pick children up and could get to the school in emergency conditions.

“Prior to our work, there was no emergency pick-up procedure,” said Bobby Lutzker, one of the parents on the committee. “They practiced fire drills and a lock-down drill once, but there wasn’t much done related to earthquake preparedness. It kind of became clear that the staff didn’t have a plan, and so we started planning some staff training as well.” That training involves the Berkeley Fire Department and CERT staff and is on-going.

Because of these efforts, as well as the Great ShakeOut, two teachers actually wrote a catchy song about “drop, cover, hold on” that was sung in a school-wide auditorium and also the morning of the drill. The song went viral, at least within the school, as children started humming it in the hallways. Natalia Bernal and Erika Englund wrote the song and Englund is playing the guitar in the video below.

YouTube video

The parent committee has had one preparedness fair at the school already, and is planning a March event that will be open to the general public. The upcoming event is aimed specifically at Berkeley’s Spanish-speaking communities. LeConte is a dual bi-lingual school.

“Our goal is to make the LeConte community as prepared as possible,” said Liza Lutzker, another committee member. “Since there really isn’t a systematic approach to emergency preparedness at BUSD schools, we are hoping that the content and methods we have been developing here can be used to help other schools stay safe as well.”

LeConte is now working to train staff for specific post-earthquake tasks. “We have people assigned to the search and rescue team,” Valerio said, “but what specifically are they supposed to do? We are prepared for the first three minutes of an emergency, but what about the next 15 minutes or an hour into the emergency? What do we do two hours into the emergency? We have this big binder of information, but we need to figure out exactly who is going to do what.”

Kids participate in the Great Shakeout at LeConte Elementary School. Photo: Daphne White
Kids participate in the Great Shakeout at LeConte Elementary School. Photo: Daphne White

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Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...