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How preparing for a devastating earthquake will help you survive it

Two major earthquakes have rocked Southern California in the past week, prompting questions about whether residents and the government are prepared for an even bigger one. Science reporter Jacob Margolis of KPCC public radio examines those questions in his podcast, “The Big One: Your Survival Guide,” and explains to Judy Woodruff how to prepare for a potentially devastating earthquake.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After two serious earthquakes rocked Southern California, questions are raised anew about the extent to which residents and governments are prepared for an even bigger quake.

    Seismologists and public officials have warned repeatedly for years about the big one, shorthand for a major earthquake along a different crack in the earth, the San Andreas Fault. Scientists say last week's quakes and the aftershocks since don't make ruptures along the San Andreas any more or less likely.

    But this is a good time to revisit the larger concerns and what people need to know.

    Jacob Margolis has laid this out extensively in a podcast called "The Big One: Your Survival Guide." He is a science reporter with KPCC. That's Southern California public radio.

    Jacob Margolis, thank you very much for being with us.

    So when we talk with the big one, am I right that we're not talking about if, we're talking about when?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Yes, it is when.

    A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on the southern San Andreas is just is just one of the many scenarios that we could have in Southern California. But if that hits, I mean, it's going to be absolutely devastating.

    Some of those buildings in the background that you see there could potentially be at risk of collapse. There's risk that fires will break out throughout all the hills, that we will have close to 2,000 fatalities. And that, of course, is just a scenario. They're just estimates, possibilities of what could happen, but it's not going to look good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the scope of this is truly as big and serious as people fear?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Yes, I don't think people understand the scope. I don't think people understand just how bad it could possibly be, and how bad the many different scenarios could be.

    And I feel that way because, even though I grew up in Los Angeles, my wife grew up in Los Angeles, and we both lived through the 1994 Northridge earthquake, even we weren't ready before I did the podcast.

    And I think that's the case for a lot of Californians, and Southern Californians, that they just don't have supplies. They don't have any contingency plans. If, say, they're separated from their families across a city, how are you going to get back together? I don't think a lot of people know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we hear you saying that. What are the kinds of things that people should be doing if they're paying attention to all this?

  • Jacob Margolis:


    The basics are one gallon of water per person per day. You should have extra food. If you need medicine, you need to make sure that you have extra medicine, as well as a way to store it if it needs to be refrigerated.

    You should have all of your documents printed out that prove that you own your home or that you rent in your place. You should have any sort of insurance documents, and then kind of cascading down from there. It's always good to have your will ready. It's really dark, but it's true.

    You should also have a contingency plan with family, friends, neighbors, anyone that lives nearby that, in case no one hears from you or in case you can't stay in your place, you can go elsewhere.

    In addition to that, you want to be able to travel away from your location, if you really need to, though staying in place is preferred. So it's always good to have some sort of kit for the car as well, which is something that I have, obviously, because we report. And so we head out into the field, and we need to be able to kind of live out of our cars for a couple days, possibly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, for example, what does one need in the car?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Yes, I have extra water, a jacket. I have some — like a safety vest, all sorts of little knickknacks to make sure that I can kind of report from the field to charge my computer.

    And — but, most importantly, it's the water and the extra bars of food. That will get me through a couple days. Though it won't be plush, it'll work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is this kind of information, Jacob Margolis, is it easily available to people?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    You know, the government has done a really — I think actually done a pretty good job. FEMA has done a pretty good job. Cal OES, Office of Emergency Services, has done a good job. There is outreach happening all the time.

    That said, people aren't necessarily always really receptive to it. And you see people shut off when they're presented with these very scary issues. And so I think that there is this weird place of where you have to convince people that this is going to happen, that they need to prepare, but they also need to then — it's not as simple as just scaring them.

    You need to — you need them to, like, really digest that information. And what we saw after these major earthquakes in Ridgecrest were a lot of people reaching out, saying, finally, I'm going to listen to your podcast, I'm going to put together an earthquake kit, I'm going to get ready.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about advice? And I know we're obviously talking to people in California, residents. But we're also talking to people who have family there, people who travel to California. And a lot of people are in and out of California all the time.

    Simple advice on what to do when an earthquake comes?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Yes, don't run into a doorway. Get under a desk, duck, cover, and hold on.

    If you're in your bed, which I was when — when the 7.1 hit, stayed in my bed. I made sure that there's nothing around my bed that was going to fall down. My kid was crying in the other room. But he was in his crib, and I knew that his bedroom had been set up in such a way that he was going to be OK.

    So, really, make sure that you can hunker down in place, no matter where you are. If you're out and about, it's a little more difficult. But if you can find a park bench to jump under anything like that, you just want to stop stuff from falling down on you, is the big thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is there, Jacob Margolis, one more thing that government can be doing, that all of us in the media should be doing to try to get this word out?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    So what the government, as well as news agencies and anyone else that wants to convey this information needs to do, one, we need to be very careful with our facts, because, obviously, there's a lot of misinformation out there.

    And, two, I think that we need to show people. We can't just tell people this is going to happen. So, like, in our podcast, we really dive through all the little individual things that are going to happen. Say you're out on the street and you're injured. A fire truck is probably not going to stop for you. Why?

    We go into that. And we explain a whole lot of things like that. Should you stay or should you go? And what those examples do is, it lets people — it puts people in a situation in their minds where they can imagine themselves there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jacob Margolis, you have done a lot of reporting on this. And it's all valuable, and especially right now, when people are thinking about it.

    The podcast is called "The Big One: Your Survival Guide."

    Jacob Margolis, with KPCC in Southern California, thank you.

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Thank you.

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