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Great Shakeout drill had minimal impact

At 10:19 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, Mills students in the Tea Shop did nothing out of the ordinary.

Emails alerted students to expect the Great Shakeout, a California-wide earthquake drill with thousands of schools participating. Students might have expected alarms, loudspeaker announcements and classes of students filing out of the halls onto Holmgren Meadow, similar to the drills at California’s K-12 public schools. 

At 10:19 a.m., one customer asked a Tea Shop staff member, “Are you guys going to close up when the earthquake drill happens?” who replied, “Maybe!”

By 10:30 a.m. at the Tea Shop, there was still no audible or visible sign of a drill. No announcements, no students rallying to exit the building, no talk of “drop, cover, and hold on,” which are the official instructions published on Great Shakeout promotional materials.

Coincidentally, Michael Jackson’s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” played over the Tea Shop’s speakers.

Class of 2020 student Mariana Sauceda received a text about the drill from the Mills alert system at 10:30 a.m. and a phone call at 10:31 a.m.

In a slow, feminine, computer voice, the voicemail thanked participants of the Great Shakeout. Around 20 seconds in, it instructed listeners, “Right now, drop, cover and hold on.”

By 1 p.m., “I got two phone calls, two texts and two emails,” student Dana Culpepper said.

The electronic alert system is a useful component of disaster preparedness, but only if you can access it.

“We were in class and I turn my cell phone off,” journalism professor Sarah Pollock said. “Do we have no sirens, do we have no other ways to reach people? Do we have no people running around the halls with bullhorns?”

“This is serious,” Pollock said. “If the college is thinking they have a system, and that system is a colossal failure, then that’s a problem.”

When the earthquake drill started, first-year student Kanani Cortez was in the Trefethen pool and her swimming class was told to get out of the water. The instructor told the class that they would not need to move to its closest emergency assembly area, the soccer field, in their wet bathing suits.

“We were all just standing outside on the pool deck,” Cortez said.

In a real earthquake, we might not need text alerts or alarms and cell service could be interrupted anyway. Our bodies would immediately sense the unsteady floor, shaking furniture, swinging light fixtures and swaying buildings. Yelling voices would alert each other, and in crises strangers tend to help each other get to safety.

The point of a drill is to train people what to do in a disaster as individuals and as a group, provide practice which promotes calmness during the real thing and identify faults in the preparedness plan.

For individuals, the Great Shakeout recommends everyone “drop, cover and hold on.” For groups, Mills College has designated emergency assembly areas.  

At the Public Safety office, large “emergency evacuation information” maps show 14 emergency assembly areas. A designated safety coordinator in each building on campus—someone likely to be there during a real emergency—meets at the Public Safety office before the drill for updates, a Public Safety staff member said. Back at each building during the drill, wearing a safety vest and helmet, each coordinator helps those evacuating to assemble outside. After taking notes during the evacuation, each coordinator turns them in to Public Safety after the drill.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit and caused Mills Hall enough damage to close the building for seven years of retrofitting. Mills College is bisected by the Hayward Fault, a split in the crust of the Earth where its plates are moving in different directions. The crust’s movement is inevitable and can cause great destruction, like an angry dinner guest trying to rip the tablecloth off a nicely-set table. Our schools, homes, hospitals and infrastructure appear solid but their existence is impermanent.

UC Berkeley is also situated atop the Hayward Fault, which runs right through the newly-renovated Cal Bears football stadium, where the new artificial turf has a jagged light-green stripe acknowledging the path of the fault line.

“Since it has been more than 144 years [149 years in 2017] since the last major earthquake, the clock is ticking. It is very likely that the Hayward fault will rupture and produce a significant earthquake within the next 30 years,” Berkeley’s Seismology Lab website says.

The college maintains three days of emergency food for 1,000 students and emergency tents but those are only useful after the disaster.