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Getting the earthquake safety message to Spanish speakers

At 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, more than 10 million Californians will be asked to drop to the floor, crawl under a table and hold on to one of the legs. It’s part of the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill. But for foreign-born Latinos, their first instinct might be to flee the building, rather than duck, cover and hold — and that could put them in more danger.

Melina Perez, who was born in Mexico, ran into her yard when she was caught in an earthquake in Oaxaca in 2000. She remembered the disastrous Mexico City earthquake of 1985, when more than 400 buildings collapsed, including hospitals and multistory apartment buildings, trapping thousands of people in the rubble.

“It’s better to be standing in a space where there isn’t anything to fall,” she said.

But what works in Latin America isn’t necessarily the right thing to do in Southern California, said CalTech seismologist Pablo Ampuero, who was born in Peru and has witnessed people running outside their homes as soon as they felt shaking. 

“The construction practice in Peru is very variable, and many people build their own houses with their own hands,” he said.

But buildings in California generally don’t collapse in earthquakes. Instead, the greatest risk is from trying to run and tripping, or from being hit by falling or flying objects such as broken glass, flat-screen TVs or bookshelves.

"People come here with concepts and behaviors that we have learned in our countries, or we have inherited from our parents, and these are things that are the right thing to do there but not here,” Ampuero said.

Assuming you’re in a well-built, modern building, safety experts recommend “duck, cover and hold,” or "agacharse, cubrirse y agarrarse." Get low, crawl under a table or a desk, and hold on to one of the legs.  

Another key difference between earthquakes in Southern California and Latin America? Tsunamis. Most earthquakes in Central and South America are caused by undersea faults that move vertically, displacing water and creating huge waves. But here, most faults are inland and move horizontally, meaning there’s a much smaller risk of a tsunami.

However, Californians do have to worry about post-earthquake fires. Our cities are crisscrossed by natural gas pipelines that can break and explode. That’s not the case in many Latin American cities, where people run their appliances off of household propane tanks that are easy to turn off and are self-contained.

These differences can make it hard for foreign-born Latinos to know what to do in an earthquake in California, Ampuero said. Safety information in Spanish often isn’t much help because it is often a literal translation of the English version.

“The printed materials in Spanish are worthless to the Latino community because there’s no cultural perspective,” said Irma Muñoz, head of Mujeres de la Tierra, an environmental justice organization in East L.A. She partnered with Ampuero on a big idea: a science-based, hands-on workshop in Spanish where people can compare what happens in their native countries with best practices in California.

Muñoz proved to be an ideal partner. She has a history of bringing scientists into the community to talk about issues like oil and gas development. She finds it helps people to hear from experts.

“They have fear in their hearts,” she said. “They need to have facts in their head.”

On a recent Saturday, Ampuero dished out some of those facts in front of a largely Latino crowd at the School of History and Dramatic Arts in Glassell Park. Outside, there were plates of pan dulce and carafes of coffee. Two Boy Scouts were using a ratchet to pull a brick along sandpaper to simulate the forces of an earthquake. CalTech researchers were on hand to explain how that seismic friction produces unpredictable earthquakes.

Understanding how and why things happen was Perez’s favorite part of the workshop.

“I think the best thing was hearing it from people that study this, whose lives are dedicated to it,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘I think it’s like this,’ or, ‘Maybe…’ Because that’s what we are used to hearing in the community.”

She glanced down at her kids as they rubbed their eyes and slumped on the floor. Kids get bored of everything, she said, but she hoped these three hours on a Saturday would pay off next time there is an earthquake.