IT TAKES AN EARTHQUAKE

By: Somasekhar Sundaresan

In this day and age, it would be rare not to have experienced a mock fire evacuation drill at least at the work place, but one would most certainly never have had a mock earthquake drill, although it’s quite likely many of us have at least felt a tremor

When it happened, I was in a meeting in a leading five-star hotel in Gurgaon. I felt my chair rumble. A suggestion that we were experiencing tremors and an earthquake was potentially brewing, was duly laughed off. The laughter quietened a bit when the crystal chandeliers, jingling at first, started sounding like chiming puja bells.

But it did not alarm. Some checked the internet and social media to see if there was news about any earthquake, continuing to be seated under the chiming chandeliers. Others sauntered out and got coffee in the corridor. Some felt asking the hotel staff would be a great idea. The chef from the nearby kitchen came to take a look at the chandeliers. Asked if things kept in the kitchen were shaking too, he joked about how there were no chandeliers in his kitchen.

Further down the corridor, one of India’s largest media houses was having an in-house retreat. The journalists were similarly carefree. Some were visiting the toilet, some stood out to get a smoke while others lounged in the corridor of the hotel. When asked if they had any confirmations from their news desks about an earthquake, not many were enthusiastic about finding out.

Overheard voices narrated a wisecrack about PM Modi taking the Delhi Metro, causing the earth to tremble, and “Does not look like anything major here.” The tremor continued for an eerie length. Back in our respective rooms, the second round lasted longer with lesser dramatic impact — although the presentation screen kept shaking like an old movie because the overhead projector hung from the ceiling. “Aftershocks are normal,” said someone, meaning to be helpful.

No alarms went off. No evacuations were ordered. No loudspeakers asked for people to move out of their rooms and assemble at any rescue area. In short, the hotel had no drill to deal with earthquakes. Worse, every single person around seemed to have his own judgement on what was really going on and what was needed to be done. In a nutshell, no one is prepared on how to handle an earthquake even in the best of hotels and among the best of journalists.

The next time you close your hotel door, look for the fire evacuation drill displayed on the inside. Where your room is, where you are supposed to head when there is a fire, what to do and what not to do, would scream at you if only you cared to read. In many hotels, the first television channel advertises features of the hotel while the very next channel would display a continuous spool of how to react in case of fire. But an earthquake? You will find nothing. Not for us, they think. Earthquakes are expected only in places like Japan, Turkey and California. And they must have it all figured out so why bother?

In this day and age, it would be rare not to have experienced a mock fire evacuation drill at least at the work place. It would be extremely rare to have experienced a real fire accident. But it is likely that one would have experienced some mild form of a quake in a lifetime, but one would most certainly never have had a mock earthquake drill.

Earthquakes are considered even more remote than “spotting a black swan”. In human intuition, they are not meant to occur frequently enough to worry about what to do when one hits. At first blush, one would dismiss it as the Indian bravado against nature. But then, I do know that many in my meeting room keenly wear seatbelts in cars as a safety measure while others do so only because their cars annoy them with alarms until the seatbelt is clicked on. Fire brigade authorities conducted fire-preparedness inspections in multi-storied buildings in Mumbai after a recent high-profile fire.

What would it then take to build the same regulatory response to earthquakes? The Nepal Prime Minister projects that the death toll could touch the five-digit mark. Need it take anything more for legislative policy intervention to induce greater attention to safety regulations around earthquakes?

Tweets: @SomasekharS

(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on May 1, 2015)

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