Hit the Deck: We’re due for an earthquake

Experts believe Nevada is due for a major earthquake, so they penciled one in for Thursday.

The quake is scheduled to hit at exactly 10:17 a.m. on 10/17, with widespread metaphorical damage that could trigger an increase in awareness and preparedness.

It’s called the Great Nevada Shake Out, and more than 550,000 people are expected to take part, including all of Clark County’s roughly 315,000 public school students.

The annual drill will send participants scrambling beneath desks and tables as part of something called “drop, cover and hold on.”

“In most cases, our buildings are not going to fall down,” UNLV geology professor Wanda Taylor said. It’s the stuff inside of them — overhead light fixtures, wall-mounted televisions, bookshelves and the like — that pose the greatest risk during an earthquake.

To protect yourself from falling debris, you should crawl under the nearest sturdy piece of furniture and hold on to it until the shaking subsides, usually after a minute or so. The holding on part is important, Taylor said, because an earthquake can cause desks and tables to shake across the room, leaving you exposed.

Nevada is the third-most seismically active state in the nation. Only California and Alaska see more earthquakes.

Seven quakes of magnitude 6.5 or greater have struck Nevada in the past century, but none has occurred since 1954. One of the last major quakes to hit the state was a 6.0 that caused extensive damage to the Elko County city of Wells in 2008.

“This idea that you can’t have big earthquakes in Nevada, that it has to be on the San Andres Fault, just isn’t true,” said Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, which is organizing the Shake Out. “At some level you know it’s coming, and the best we can do is prepare.”

Taylor said it’s especially important for people here to be prepared for the big one, because Las Vegas is a lot more susceptible than one might think.

The valley is surrounded by a half dozen seismic faults capable of producing major quakes, but they have been largely quiet for a thousand years or more. Two of those faults are actually in the valley. One of them, at the base of Frenchman Mountain, has the potential to cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage with just a magnitude-5.9 quake, Taylor said.

The good news for Las Vegas is that many of the structures here are relatively new and were built to modern earthquake standards.

Taylor said the building she worries about the most at UNLV is her own. Most structures on campus should be fine in a quake, but the cinder-block Lilly Fong Geoscience building could be in some trouble, she said with a laugh. “It’s dangerous to know too much sometimes.”

The Great Nevada Shake Out is part of a larger earthquake preparedness drill involving more than 18 million people around the country and across the globe. This year’s event will stress the importance of having a family disaster preparedness plan.

Kent said anyone anywhere can participate by going online and signing up at shakeout.org.

“There’s good reason for everybody in the United States to take part,” he said. After all, people travel to Southern California, Las Vegas and other seismically active areas all the time. And just because you live somewhere with low activity doesn’t mean there is no activity.

Someday, people living in fault zones could get at least some warning before a quake. Kent said California, Oregon and Washington are getting ready to test a new system that will send alerts to smart phones at the first sign of a major temblor. Depending on where you are in relation to the quake, the warning could buy you a few seconds or a few minutes.

If the system works, Kent expects to see Nevada adopt it eventually.

Until then, we’ll be under our desks.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0350. He is on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.

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