Expert debunks myths about what to do during an earthquake

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How to Survive an Earthquake

Every year tens of millions of people take part in a massive earthquake drill called the Great ShakeOut, which teaches people what to do and how to respond in case of a ground-rattling temblor. Over the years all sorts of theories have developed around how to keep yourself safe -- many of them untrue. We talked to an expert who debunked some of the bizarre myths surrounding these natural events.

Meet Mark Benthien, the Director for Communication, Education and Outreach for the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), headquartered at the University of Southern California. He has a degree in Geophysics and a Master in Public Policy. He leads efforts to increase earthquake awareness, reduce economic losses and save lives. He's also the lead organizer for the annual Great California ShakeOut. He was recognized in 2012 by the White House as a "Champion of Change" for advancing the causes of earthquake and tsunami education and safety.

Can you explain the "triangle of life" theory and is it actually true?
The "triangle of life" is an Internet conspiracy theory that promotes remaining uncovered during earthquake shaking, claiming that all desks or tables will always be crushed because buildings always collapse. These are false assumptions. Most injuries in earthquakes are caused by falling or flying objects, not buildings, and getting beneath a desk or table provides shelter. All reputable Urban Search And Rescue teams recommend the globally recognized earthquake safety protocol "Drop, Cover, and Hold On." Learn more at earthquakecountry.org/dropcoverholdon.

A lot of people were told to stand in a doorway in the past -- is that actually a good place to be? Are there any other false theories people should know to avoid?​
An enduring earthquake image of California is a collapsed adobe home with the door frame as the only standing part. From this came our belief that a doorway is the safest place to be during an earthquake. True- if you live in an old, unreinforced adobe house. In modern houses, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house. Importantly they also do not provide shelter from falling or flying objects, and if several people are in a room they may not all fit in the door!

See photos of people participating in earthquake drills:
12 PHOTOS
Great ShakeOut Earthquake drill 2014
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Expert debunks myths about what to do during an earthquake
Victims receive treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims receive treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims receive treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims receive treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims receive treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims wait to be evacuated during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims are evacuated during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims are evacuated during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Victims wait for treatment during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Students Michelle Acosta (L) and Jenna Golden (R) endure a simulated earthquake in the Ready America 'Big Shaker'' during the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill at Biola University in La Mirada on October 16, 2014. About 10.3 million Californian's registered to take part in the annual drill that asks participants to 'drop'' to the ground, take 'cover'' under a desk, table or other sturdy surface, and 'hold on'' for 60 seconds, as if a major earthquake were occurring. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA-OCTOBER 16, 2014: Pasadena Christian School participated for the fourth straight year in an earthquake drill. The drill is part of the Great Shakeout Earthquake Drill. Sixth graders take cover under their desks at the beginning of the drill which went off nationwide at 10:16am. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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If you're in a tall building, are lower floors safer?
Modern tall buildings (built since the late 1970s) are designed to withstand significant earthquake shaking. Much of this is due to flexibility in steel frames rather than stiff concrete or brick buildings of the past. This means that modern tall buildings will sway by design, and higher floors will move more than lower floors. Older buildings may collapse partially, but rarely completely; in these buildings it may be safer to be higher, rather than at the bottom of the collapsed building.

If you're driving, should you stay in your car during and earthquake?
Yes. Pull over to the side of the road, stop and set the parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking is over. If a power line falls on the car, stay inside until a trained person removes the wire.

If you can't find a desk or table to get under, where is the next best place to take shelter?​
The key is to "drop" to the ground wherever you are when strong shaking begins; cover your head and neck with one arm and if you can't get under something for shelter, move against a nearby interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. Avoid exterior walls, windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances, and kitchen cabinets with heavy objects or glass.

Is it possible for the ground to ever split wide open?​
Yes, though not along the shifting fault. Earthquakes only happen due to friction between two blocks of the Earth's crust that suddenly slips, and sends shaking in all directions. However surface soils and hillsides can settle or slump, opening up shallow cracks.

Do small earthquakes stop big ones from occurring?
No; a magnitude 8 earthquake releases 1 million times more energy than a magnitude 4, and 1,000 times more than a magnitude 6. Even if 1,000 magnitude 6 earthquakes were to occur in a region, they wouldn't happen in just the right location to prevent a larger earthquake; in fact they could increase stress along a particular fault that leads to a large earthquakes.

Can animals sense when earthquakes are coming?
No reputable scientific studies have confirmed any ability of animals to sense earthquakes before the ground begins to shift along the fault. However animals may sense the initial earthquake waves that arrive before stronger shaking. People can feels these too but we are not as close to the ground or are often distracted by daily life.

Is there such thing as "earthquake weather"?​
No. Earthquakes begin many miles beneath the earth's surface. Atmospheric weather only affects the first few feet beneath the surface. No reputable scientific studies have found a repeatable correlation between weather patterns and earthquakes.

Most importantly, what is the very best thing to do in an earthquake and what should everyone do to be prepared?​
When you feel shaking, immediately DROP down onto your hands and knees. An earthquake is less likely to knock you over in this position, and you are a smaller target for anything falling or flying. Then, COVER your head with your arms. Clasp your hands around your neck. Bend over to protect your vital organs. Finally, HOLD ON by gripping a table leg or other part of your shelter. Continue protecting your head and neck with your other arm. Remain on your knees and bent over, ready to move with your shelter when it shifts during the shaking. After the shaking is over, wait a moment and check all around and above you before getting up or leaving your shelter.

See photos from some of the worst quakes:
17 PHOTOS
The deadliest earthquakes in US history
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Expert debunks myths about what to do during an earthquake
Damaged Kaiser Medical Building in the Northridge Reseda area of Los Angeles after 1994 earthquake (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
A car at a Mazda dealership crushed in the Los Angeles earthquake of January 17, 1994 (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

April 1960: Valdivia, Chile

(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

picture taken in April 1960 in Valdivia of people looking at an enormous crack on a street due to the earthquake that struck the area on May 22, 1960. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)

October 18, 1989: San Francisco, California

(Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)

August 24, 2014: Napa, California

(Photo credit Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

March 10, 1933: Long Beach, California

(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Damaged building exterior, damage caused by the 1933 earthquake, Long Beach, California, March 12, 1933. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Part of a long line of homeless earthquake victims as they wait for food rations at a relief tent set up after a series of devastating quakes, Long Beach, California, March 13, 1933. The powerful quakes began March 11 and killed 115 people and did $75,000,000 in damage. Signs on the tent read 'Free Food' and 'Food Administer.' (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)

April 6, 1946: Aleutian Islands

(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 9, 1946: Hilo, Hawaii 

Homeless people are taken to emergency accommodation on US Army trucks, 9th April 1946, after a Pacific-wide tsunami hit Hilo, Hawaii. The tidal wave, on 1st April, was caused by an earthquake near the Aleutian Islands. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1906: Full-length view of pedestrians examining frame houses, which lean to one side on the verge of collapse after the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1906: View of a cobblestone street, which was split down the middle after the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, California. A wooden cart has fallen into the crack. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)
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Read more stories about earthquakes:
Expert debunks myths about what to do during an earthquake
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