U.S. earthquake fears spur more drills: 'Drop, cover, hold on'

By Carey Gillam

By Carey Gillam

(Reuters) - Three months ago when an earthquake rattled Mickey Hart's office, the Crescent, Oklahoma public school superintendent didn't know what to do.

"I froze," said Hart, who leads the school district of 650 students in the small community north of Oklahoma City. Several of the district's buildings were damaged in the July quake as ceiling tiles shattered and walls cracked.

School district officials are now planning their first earthquake drills, Hart said. They are not alone.

On Thursday the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)and other government agencies are organizing the "Great ShakeOut" earthquake drill, a series of events across the United States aimed at preparing people to survive damaging seismic activity.

About 3 million people are signed up to participate across 14 central states that include Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and for the first time, Texas, up from 2.76 million a year ago, organizers said. Nationwide, nearly 19 million people are registered for the drills, FEMA said.

While common in California and other states where quakes are frequent, such drills are still relatively new in the central United States. But they are gaining in popularity as earthquake activity surges in both frequency and intensity.

"In Oklahoma when you have a natural disaster like a tornado you are trained to get underground," Hart said. "In an earthquake you don't want to get underground. What do you do?"

The ShakeOut (http://www.shakeout.org/) drills are targeted at everyone from business owners to first responders such as firemen and paramedics, but most of the drills are being held at public schools.

In Thursday's drills, the slogan is 'drop, cover and hold on." At the first rumblings, people should drop to the floor, take cover under sturdy furniture or against an interior wall, and hold on until the shaking stops, emergency management experts recommend.

"The scientific community can't predict an earthquake. The only thing we can do is really push preparedness," said Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, which is helping coordinate drills.

People in Oklahoma, which had a magnitude 4.5 quake Saturday near the north-central Oklahoma town of Cushing, are particularly in need of the training, officials said. The Oct. 10 quake rattled homes for hundreds of miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Some quakes, including some of those in Oklahoma, are thought to be induced by the injection of wastewater associated with oil and gas work into deep disposal wells, while others are considered a natural shifting along fault lines that run deep below the earth's surface.

Noticeable quakes, above magnitude 3.0, now strike Oklahoma at an average rate of roughly two per day, compared with two or so per year before 2009.

"You don't know where or when it will happen. Everyone needs to know how to respond," said Brian Blake, program coordinator for the earthquake consortium.


(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Mo.; Editing by David Bailey and Eric Walsh)