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Who's in the Video
Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam is Doherty Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director of Seismology, Geology, and Tectonophysics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of the Earth Institute of Columbia University.

For both citizens and government, diligent preparations can make the difference between “ho-hum” and disaster.

Question: Can you share any practical wisdom about preparing for earthquakes?

Arthur Lerner-Lam:  You know, preparing for an earthquake is multifaceted, multidimensional, and the first thing really is being aware.  Yes, I’ve said that earthquakes can occur anywhere, but they’re more likely some places than others, so you know basic awareness of where your house, where you work, where you are relative to the faults that might cause an earthquake.  That’s a matter of public education, but once you know what your risk might be you have to make some sort of personal judgment or if you’re a government, some sort of social judgment about the level of risk that you’re willing to accept is going to be and if you’re willing to accept or only willing to accept a low level of risk then there are a number of things you need to do.  You need to ensure that major infrastructure is resilient, that our waterlines, our power lines are built in such a way so that they won’t break, that bridges and highways won’t fall down, that fire stations will remain standing, so that the fire personnel can respond and that hospitals remain standing.  With respect to individuals and their homes, if you’re in an earthquake zone ensuring that your building is up to code if a code exists, ensuring that you follow that code, and even little things like keeping the knickknacks away from the edge of the shelf, keeping your dishes way back.  Those are the sorts of things that can make the difference between sort of “Ho-hum—boy, was that an interesting event” and something that was a disaster, and these are all written down.  You can go to the FEMA websites, USGS websites.  There are a whole list of these things. 

The problem arises when first you don’t have building codes or those codes aren’t enforced.  That was the situation in Haiti.  Or you don’t have the national or social wealth to actually consider this something you can do.  I mean the…  I don’t mean to bring up Haiti constantly, but the issue there was that there were so many sort of day-to-day problems facing Haiti culture and Haiti government that something that might happen really can’t get on the radar screen, and you could argue the right or wrong of that, but that basically is the situation and sad to say, that happens throughout the world.  So you know the basic things are really quite easy to do if you’ve got the money to do them and if you got the public awareness to do them and if you’ve got the political will to do them if you’re dealing with the commons, if you’re dealing with infrastructure.  Where you don’t have the political will or the wealth there are a number of things that the community is trying to do.  there is a lot of concentration on building small scale community awareness so that the awareness of disaster, the awareness of potential disaster I should say occurs almost at the household level and enabling people to make decisions, but also giving them sort of the simple things that they could do on a day-to-day basis, not just for earthquakes, but for floods, for landslides and for that matter, for longer term issues like sea level rise and climate change.  You know one of the key things that we’re doing at our institute and elsewhere is trying to bring the knowledge we have about earth processes.  The earth is a dynamic planet.  It’s fun to look at.  We enjoy doing that, but if affects people and one of the things we’re trying to do is to bring that knowledge, not just throw it over the fence, so that policymakers can use it because you know there is not enough feedback in that kind of a system.  We really… Scientists need to understand social and cultural constraints on using the information and in fact, even the utility of the information that they provide, and if I may say I think the social scientists and governments and NGOs need to know what they don’t know, and that’s a difficult task, but to be honest it’s an interesting and important thing to do and we’re getting better at it.