Oregon says drop, cover and hold on in an earthquake. Some specialists disagree.

A prominent earthquake expert in Oregon says the state should be more nuanced in its message for the annual ShakeOut drill

By: - October 20, 2021 1:01 pm
The Oregon Coast

Parts of the Oregon Coast could be wiped out by a tsunami caused by a subduction zone earthquake. (MJ Tangonan/Unsplash)

Seismic experts agree that one day the state will be smacked by a massive earthquake off the coast that will cause widespread damage. They also agree that Oregonians need to prepare.

But they disagree on what the state should advise.

On Thursday, the state holds its annual Great Oregon ShakeOut drill aimed at raising awareness of the threat of the Big One, like the magnitude 9.1 earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 and killed more than 18,000 people. 

A similar event in Oregon would be much more destructive. The state is not prepared for a strong earthquake, though it has progressed in improving infrastructure and raising awareness by holding annual drills. 

“Unlike Southern California, we don’t get regular reminders of earthquakes to keep us on our toes,” said Chris Goldfinger, professor and seismic expert at Oregon State University. “We kind of have to create something to help train people and remind them that even though we don’t have daily earthquakes or monthly or even yearly earthquakes, that we still need to prepare the same way people do in California.”

Prepare your home

If you have a home built before 1993, it may need a retrofit to make it earthquake ready.

Goldfinger advises:

  • Have your house bolted to the foundation by a qualified contractor;
  • Get a gas shutoff valve to turn your gas off in an earthquake;
  • Ensure your water heater is strapped down.

For more information, go here.

The first Great ShakeOut drill was held in California in 2008. In January 2011, Oregon held a test with 38,000 people. Another drill was held that October with 23,000 participants, and since then it’s continued to grow.

This year more than 520,000 people in schools, government buildings, health care centers, businesses and elsewhere have registered with the state to take part.


To register for the drill, go here.  The state wants as many people as possible to participate to set an example and raise awareness.

The drill takes place at 10:21 a.m. when people drop, cover and hold on: drop to the ground, cover your head and seek shelter under a sturdy desk if possible or next to an interior wall away from windows and wait.

State emergency managers say this is the best strategy to stay safe.

“We find that the most common injuries are from falling objects or from being thrown to the ground during the shaking,” said Althea Rizzo, the geologic hazards program coordinator at Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. “You won’t get thrown around if you cover your head and neck and get underneath something sturdy that will also help protect you from things falling on you.”

Not everyone agrees.

“I don’t think telling people to get under their desks is necessarily the best option,” Goldfinger said. “In some situations, particularly older structures, some other plan might be better.”

As an example, he cited his office building in Corvallis. Like a lot of concrete structures in Oregon built in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, it would pancake in a strong quake, he said.

In a big quake, Goldfinger does not plan to drop.

“My plan is to grab everyone I can find on my floor and get out,” he said.

He said residents who live in the Willamette Valley would likely have a minute of warning if a big quake occurs in the subduction zone off the Pacific Coast. They would first feel light shaking, he said, giving them time to go outside before the strong waves hit.

“If you have time to think about it,” he said, “then going outside might be a good option.”

He said the choice depends on whether people are in a retrofitted structure or on the ground floor when the shaking starts and what’s outside. He’s fortunate to have streets and a parking lot outside his office where there is minimal threat from  falling objects.

He advised everyone to consider their own situation. In a city with tall office buildings, it would be best to drop, cover and hold on rather than risk getting hit by falling debris outside. In other situations, he said, it would be best to go outside rather than risk having it collapse.

My plan is to grab everyone I can find on my floor and get out.

– Chris Goldfinger, professor and seismic expert at Oregon State University

But the state doesn’t have a nuanced message.

“The agencies have chosen this path of drop, cover and hold on mostly because it’s simple, not because it’s effective,” Goldfinger said. 

It was taken from Japan and California, which are much more earthquake resilient, he said. 

“Our infrastructure is nowhere near as strong as Japan and not even as good as California,” Goldfinger added.

Rizzo rejected Goldfinger’s arguments.

She said studies done after the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand in 2011 showed that moving in an earthquake is really dangerous.

“They found that people who tried to exit buildings had more injuries because of the facades of buildings collapsing into the sidewalks,” Rizzo said. “There’s no guarantee that you can have a minute of warning.”

You might only have a few seconds, Rizzo said.

Planners propose 50-year plan

In 2013, state planners analyzed what would happen if Oregon were hit with a massive quake. Their report said that in the Willamette Valley electricity would be out for up to three months, that it would take up to a year to restore drinking water and sewer services and that health care facilities would need 18 months to be rebuilt. 

The prospects for recovery on the coast were even more bleak.

Coastal residents could be without drinking water and sewage services for up to three years, electricity could be down as long as six months and it might take three years to restore health care services.

The report recommended a 50-year plan, which would require the support of successive governors and other elected officials and trillions of dollars.

Rizzo said progress has been made in some areas. Schools are being retrofitted, and the state has mapped tsunami zones and evacuation routes. 

But not everyone will get out, Goldfinger said.

Those who hop into their cars are likely to get into a deadly traffic jam, as they did in Japan in 2011. Goldfinger, who was there at the time for an earthquake conference, was in a seven-story building and was fine.

But thousands died trying to escape the tsunami by car.

“People who literally can run fast and know what to do will be able to get away,” Goldfinger said.  “People who can’t move that fast are going to be in trouble in some places.”

Emergency managers advise everyone to plan for an earthquake. Pack food, water and emergency supplies for the whole family, including pets, and keep it in a closet near the front door, Rizzo said. 

Those who are inland should have a minimum of two weeks of supplies. Residents on the coast should have up to six months worth.

She also said it’s a good idea to keep supplies in various places — your home, the office and your car. And make sure your friends and relatives are prepared.

“We’ve seen over the last couple of years how being prepared is really important,” Rizzo said.


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.