Common myths about earthquakes and other natural disasters

Allen Foster

Always listen to emergency announces and follow any and all evacuation notices. It's always better to be too cautious in emergency situations.

Common myths about earthquakes and other natural disasters

An earthquake happens along the fault line between tectonic plates. These plates are in constant slow motion, moving at only about one or two inches per year. When the tension between plates builds up, a catastrophe can happen. One of the plates might move over another, or part of a plate might break, sending phenomenally powerful seismic waves rippling across the earth. In either situation, you have an earthquake -- a violent shaking of the ground that can cause massive destruction.

An earthquake can buckle highways and topple buildings. Under certain conditions, the moving plates could even release magma through a fissure in the ocean floor. An earthquake can create a tsunami, a massive wall of water that races at up to 500 miles per hour toward land. However, an earthquake will not yawn wide enough to create a hole that swallows buildings. That's a sinkhole, and a sinkhole happens for very different reasons than an earthquake.

Knowing what could happen, and why, is your primary defense against natural disasters. Knowledge is power. For example, if a tornado is coming, you should seek refuge in a small interior room at the lowest level of your home. But if a tsunami is coming, barricading yourself inside would doom you and your family.

Following are some common myths about natural disasters. Realizing what is myth and what is fact is key to protecting yourself in an emergency situation.

Common myths

Myth: The safest place to be in an earthquake is a doorway.

A doorway offers no added protection during an earthquake. If your walls crack and crumble, so will your doorframe. Actually, it is more dangerous to stand in a doorway because the earth's violent movements could cause the door to swing wildly. What's more, standing in a doorway is a good way to get trampled by panicked people who are fleeing the location. A much better option is to position yourself beneath a solid desk or table and cling to it to help protect against falling debris.

Myth: During a tornado, it is safe to take refuge under a highway overpass.

Hiding under an overpass or any tunnel-like structure during a tornado is extremely dangerous. The different pressures on opposite sides of the structure could actually increase the wind's speed, making it one of the most dangerous places to be. A nearby shelter with a permanent and sturdy foundation is preferable. If that is not possible, a low area like a ditch is your best choice.

Myth: Putting tape on your windows will protect them during a hurricane.

If hurricane winds batter your home or launch a projectile into your window, the glass will shatter. Taping your windows could actually create larger and more lethal shards of glass. Arming your home with impact-resistant windows or hurricane shutters is far more effective (and safer) than taping your windows.

Myth: It's safe to drive an SUV through floodwaters.

All it takes is one foot of water to sweep your SUV away. Even if you just want to drive a short distance and you're feeling lucky, it's a very bad idea to drive an SUV through water. Besides the current, hidden perils such as hazardous debris and road damage may lurk unseen. Furthermore, it's hard to determine the actual depth of the water until it's too late. According to the National Weather Service, the leading cause of death from a thunderstorm is flooding -- hence the "Turn Around Don't Drown" slogan.

Myth: Earthquakes usually happen in the morning on hot, dry days.

Although you may witness the devastating effects of an earthquake from above ground, it originates deep beneath the earth's surface -- about 500 miles beneath your feet -- which is far beyond the reaches of weather. It is important to remember that an earthquake can happen during any type of weather at any time of day.

Myth: You can outrun a tornado.

What makes this myth so alarming is that it comes from a variety of "reputable" sources. Some even go so far as to tell you not to listen to the clear and distinct warnings being broadcast by the National Weather Service. While a tornado travels at top speeds of 70 miles per hour, and most cars can exceed that limit, you have to factor in the extreme conditions you'll be driving in. It's difficult to travel at even half that speed during a downpour, so telling someone their best chance of survival is navigating the road in tornadic winds is an irresponsible act. If there are other people using the same faulty logic, that means traffic. The best course of action is to seek secure shelter -- ideally in a cellar, storm shelter, safe room, or basement.

Myth: Dogs can predict natural disasters.

Extensive research has been done on this topic. And the results are, at best, inconclusive. Erratic behavior in animals can be the result of a number of things, especially if that animal is your pet and it senses that you are agitated. A dog might notice something that you are not paying attention to -- a mild foreshock, for instance -- but the same behavior could be triggered by a stray squirrel. Until we have a much better understanding of animal behavior, deciding whether or not to act based on what your dog is doing could prove disastrous.

Important to know

The best way to get information about a weather-related emergency is from a NOAA weather radio station.

Your goal when taking shelter in a tornado should be to place as many barriers as you can between yourself and flying debris. That is why seeking refuge in a small room at the center of the lowest point of your home is advised.

Preparation is key to survival. Every home should have an emergency kit with necessities such as food, water, flashlights, and first aid supplies. A plan should be in place in the event that something unthinkable happens.

A tornado watch is when conditions are favorable for a tornado. A tornado warning comes after one has been sighted or detected on Doppler radar.

After a hurricane has passed, the danger is not necessarily over. Be cautious of downed power lines, broken fuel lines, and other life-threatening hazards.

Your homeowners insurance policy might not include floods and damage from a natural disaster. Check your policy to find out for sure.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, floods, landslides, and other such occurrences are simply not preventable. Your best defense is awareness. Know what could happen in your region, how to interpret early warning signs, and what to do in the event of a true emergency.

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