Drop, Cover, Hold?

Is It Best For You?

What is this page about? Not all buildings will perform equally in a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. While wood-framed, single-family homes generally do pretty well in an earthquake, concrete and unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings that are not reinforced don’t do as well. Check out this PBS segment.

This image below, from the City of Portland, shows how even some retrofitted buildings may not be code compliant for life safety.

Seattle Emergency Management also has a useful page with GIFs embedded, and they provide the following video in which Nancy Devine, P.E, S.E., Senior Structural Plans Engineer for the Seattle Department of Constructions and Inspections covers Identifying Unreinforced Masonry URM Buildings.

Knowing what kind of building you are in and how it is expected to do in shaking may help you decide what you will do in an earthquake.

On this page, you’ll find information on the following topics:

  • Public Messaging on Drop, Cover, Hold
  • The messaging isn’t all that simple, to begin with.
  • A Devastating Reality
  • Do People Even Follow the Current Advice?
  • Other Choices (Oregon Bipartisan House Bill 2902, FEMA’s Protective Actions, Oregon State University professor Goldfinger)

Public Messaging

What should you do when the earth starts shaking? Overwhelmingly, authorities instruct people to DROP to all fours, take COVER under something sturdy, and HOLD on until the shaking stops—Drop, Cover, Hold (DCH). (Image from the USGS)

First, soak in the potentially life-saving Drop, Cover, and Hold information by clicking these buttons. The more you learn, the better prepared you’ll be when the time comes!

From the resources above, it’s clear that DCH is being heavily messaged, and for good reason. It saves lives. Check out this quote from a USGS research study specific to PNW earthquakes.

“Given the complexities involved and the various types of earthquakes that could occur in the Pacific Northwest, simple, clear, and consistent messaging is preferable so that users know what actions to take in most situations. Studies support this approach and indicate that drop, cover, and hold on actions are the most appropriate protective actions to take in most cases.”

Drop, Cover, Hold will likely do the greatest good for the greatest number of people during the shaking of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Organizations will continue to focus on it through public messaging. They don’t want to present communities with too many scenarios out of fear that confusion may lead to poor decision-making. But here’s the thing.

The messaging isn’t all that simple, to begin with.

ShakeOut offers instructional videos on what to do if:

  • Wheelchair
  • Power wheelchair
  • Cane or Single Crutch
  • Double Crutches or Arm Braces
  • Walker
  • Rollator-Style Walker

Messaging already recognizes that not every situation is the same, so multiple messages are already being widely distributed. Because not every situation is the same. Neither is every building.

A Devastating Reality

Some buildings in the Pacific Northwest are at risk of collapse.

February 6th, 2023, brought gut-wrenching heartbreak to the world as two massive earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks struck Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic. My heart goes out to every person who lost a loved one.

The first—a massive M 7.8—struct the southern Turkish province of Kahramanmaras. Rupturing between the Anatolian and Arabian plates, the earthquake lasted 78 excruciating seconds. It was followed by a magnitude 7.5. A 3rd devastating earthquake measuring a 6.3 struck on February 20th.

“The earthquakes in Türkiye, impacting Türkiye, Syria, and other nations, have caused an unbearable loss of life and injuries across the region.”

The United States Geological Survey (USGS)

After the devastating earthquakes, KGW conducted an interview titled, “Geologist highlights Portland buildings at risk of collapse in earthquake“. It addresses the sheer number of buildings at risk of collapse in the PNW.

The Spokesman-Review article stated, “many of the older buildings in Seattle and elsewhere in Western Washington are not built to withstand the Big One. Buildings made of unreinforced masonry, like many of Spokane’s older brick buildings, or inflexible concrete are particularly susceptible to collapse.”

Not all buildings will fare the same when the shaking hits. That single fact should be taken into consideration.

There is inconsistent research on whether to stay or go. FEMA’s Earthquake | Evacuation: Exiting an Unreinforced Masonry Building page provides examples like the following, where it was more dangerous to exit URM buildings during an earthquake due to masonry falling into the streets and sidewalks below. This example comes from the book, Evidence-based Public Education for Disaster Prevention: Causes of Deaths and Injuries in the 1999 Kocaeli Earthquake.

“Evacuating un-reinforced masonry buildings during the shaking appears to increase the risk of injury by a factor of three.” [8] (Turkey) 

FEMA’s Earthquake | Evacuation: Exiting an Unreinforced Masonry Building page also provides contradictory examples like the following, where it was safer to exit URM buildings during an earthquake due to masonry falling into the streets and sidewalks below. This example comes from research from the World Health Organization, A case-control study of injuries arising from the earthquake in Armenia, 1988.

“The possibility for escape was crucial for survival and depended on the type of building… In the seven villages studied, all the deaths and injuries which occurred within 48 hours of the impact were associated with the collapse of houses.” [11] (Italy)

Do People Even Follow the Current Advice?

Before diving deeper, it’s worth noting that social media has given us a window into how people actually behave when shaking starts. With the consistent messaging around Drop, Cover, and Hold, has the messaging worked?

The University of Oregon headed a study that examined social media videos of the 2018 Anchorage, Alaska earthquake. The researchers found:

“Recommended protective action, like Drop, Cover, and Hold On, was less common as well as less timely when people experienced the Anchorage 2018 earthquake in private relative to public structures. Adults significantly delayed their own personal protective action to find children, and often made poor protective-action decisions, especially at home.”

Similar research headed by New Zealand’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research observed individual behavior during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. It found:

“The primary trans-event responses were to hold (26%) onto furniture, walls, and/or other people close to them and to look around (30%). No individuals were observed to perform all ‘Drop, Cover, Hold’ actions, the recommended action during strong earthquake shaking in New Zealand.”

It’s hard to say if the simple, clear, consistent messaging around Drop, Cover, and Hold will work when Cascadia strikes.

Other Choices?

Bipartisan House Bill 2902, introduced in the 2023 session, would provide schools the leeway to determine if ‘Drop, Cover, Hold’ is really the best way to respond to shaking based on the integrity of THEIR building. It takes the long-held simple messaging to a more-complete message that, IMHO, is desperately needed given the state of some of our schools.

It’s encouraging to see legislation address the issue with schools. As a region, why not have similar discussions about other buildings?

FEMA’s Protective Actions page for earthquakes mentions the need for other actions in certain circumstances. Scroll down until you get to the Research section. Click the “View Research Summary”.

After clicking “View Research Summary”, read the entire page!! Good foundational information will help you make decisions when the time comes. The Messaging Focus paragraph (copied here for easy viewing) contains information about the Stay or Go option.

Last but certainly not least: The opinion of a world-leading expert on subduction zones who was in Japan during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. The detailed information an Oregon State University Professor presents is well worth your time. Click this button to visit the article.

Consider retrofitting your business to save lives and create resilience. Did you know:


Here’s my take. There’s time. There’s time for you to read and learn. It’s not up to me to withhold what might be YOUR best option simply because it’s not the best option for the majority. It’s not up to me to withhold options in order to avoid confusing you. If you’re reading this, it’s because you want to learn—and I’m grateful you’re here! How you internalize the information, how deep you dive, and how you ultimately respond to the shaking is up to you. I firmly believe learning beyond simple messaging toward “more complete messaging” will better prepare you. Knowledge (fact-based from the experts!) is powerful. It gives you choices.

What you do with those choices is up to you.

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