Schools drill for the Big One
Students duck, cover and prep for disaster in statewide ShakeOut
Four days after the 21st anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, an imaginary temblor rocked the Bay Area, testing the integrity of local schools' emergency response plans.
"Imagine that you hear a low, rumbling sound," Karen Robinson, principal of Crittenden Middle School, said over the public announcement system at 10:21 a.m. on Oct. 21. The students of Elizabeth Mogin's class, who had been briefed on what was coming, ducked beneath their group tables.
"The noise builds, getting louder and louder, for about ten seconds," Robinson continued. "Then wham! There's a terrific jolt. You feel like someone suddenly slammed the brakes on in the car, or like a truck just rammed the side of the building."
"Hold on to the desk so it doesn't move," Mogin instructed her math class, as Robinson continued describing the hypothetical magnitude 7.5 earthquake — setting the stage for a district-wide emergency drill, one of thousands of similar exercises being held concurrently across the state in recognition of The Great California ShakeOut.
Coordinated by a variety of state and national safety organizations, the ShakeOut is intended to raise earthquake awareness and encourage people all over California to be better prepared for the next big temblor, according to Susan Garcia, a spokeswoman for the United States Geological Survey, one of the agencies that helped put the event together.
"California is earthquake country," Garcia said. "The goal of the ShakeOut is to prevent disasters from becoming emergencies."
Both the Mountain View Whisman School District and the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District participated in the ShakeOut by conducting extensive earthquake drills, which tested the response of individual schools as well as district coordination. There were mock injuries and hypothetical damage to school structures; teachers and staff at the schools communicated with district officials; parents also participated, by serving as silent evaluators or showing up and attempting to pick up their children, and, in some cases, other people's children.
After Robinson announced that the shaking had stopped, Mogin's class walked out to the blacktop, sitting down in single-file lines, as teachers took roll. Tags indicating injuries hung around the necks of some students — one boy had a cut leg, another had debris in his eyes, a girl was confused and couldn't remember her name.
After roll-call, most of the students were ushered to the Whisman Sports Center's baseball field. The "injured" students were kept at a makeshift infirmary — bleachers situated next to a large blue storage shed filled with emergency supplies.
Some students wore orange vests and practiced running materials from supply caches on school grounds to teachers and staff at the incident command center, set up at home plate on the baseball diamond.
Radios crackled as search crews relayed information back to Robinson, who would serve as incident commander in the event of such an emergency. Parent participants lined up in the first-base side dugout to sign out their children.
"So, how do you know my child is OK?" Crittenden parent Lisa Ramirez asked as she stood in line in the dugout. Mogin, who was in charge of the child checkout table, explained the school's student accounting system.
After the drill, Ramirez said that she felt the school had done a great job overall and that the staff appeared to be in sync.
"I felt that my son was completely safe," Ramirez said, noting that she especially liked that the school brought the kids to the baseball field, where they were fenced in and in a controlled environment.
Students pitch in
Ramirez's 11-year-old son, William, served as a "runner," dashing back and forth between the checkout table and the field, fetching students whose parents had arrived to take them home.
William, a sixth-grader, liked being a runner, "because it's fun," and said he would want to help out in the event of a real emergency.
Seventh-grader Melissa Molina, who also served as a runner, said it felt good to do something useful. The 12-year-old added that she felt safer having run through the drill.
"I know how the system works," Melissa said. "I'm not as nervous."
While William and Melissa only helped out within the fenced-in baseball field, other students assisted outside the field. When asked whether it was wise to have students assisting in this capacity, Robinson said students would not be allowed to engage in any activity that supervising adults deemed unsafe.
"It's good for them to be out there and see what's going on," Robinson said. "I would never use a child if I thought that they weren't going to be safe."
Robinson said that she felt the drill went well overall, but noted that a new district system for ensuring every classroom and building is evacuated caused confusion.
"Every one is a learning experience," she said. "That's why we do this. Every time we learn something new."