Environment & Science

How to reunite your family after a real San Andreas quake

Dwayne Johnson (left) and Carla Gugino star in
Dwayne Johnson (left) and Carla Gugino star in "San Andreas," a movie about a massive earthquake that strikes California. The movie opens May 29, 2015.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

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In the movie San Andreas, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's character struggles to reunite his family after a 9.6-magnitude earthquake destroys much of California.

The size of the quake may be pure Hollywood fantasy, but the need for families to get in touch after a disaster is not.

Emergency preparedness experts call this a "family communication plan." Here's how to set up a plan of your own.

1. Text first, talk second

After a quake, cell lines will be clogged with phone calls, but texts can often still get though, according to Mark Benthien with the Southern California Earthquake Center.

That's because texts take up significantly less bandwidth. In fact, he says you can send roughly 800 text messages in the same amount of bandwidth used by a 2 minute phone call.

Benthien recommends keeping the text short and to the point: "Be reporting where you are, your condition and where you are headed."

Only attempt a call if more info is needed than can be expressed through a text, like the location of someone trapped in rubble.

Even when cell lines are down, land line phones often work. If you don't have a land line, look for a pay phone in your neighborhood.

2. Have an out-of-state point person

When lines are clogged locally, out-of-state calls often still go through, says Benthien.

"That line may actually work when you can't call across the street," he says.

Make sure you have a point person somewhere outside of the disaster zone who can receive calls and texts from the family and report back.

Keep this person's number in your wallet and in your phone as an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact.

Also, let this person know you've designated them for this role! That way they know to look out for messages from everyone included in the communication plan.

3. Pick a meeting place

When all else fails, meet in person.

If calls and texts aren't working, families should meet at a previously agreed upon location, Benthien says.

If your house is in good shape, it can be your meeting location.

However, if it is damaged, your family should head to a backup location.

"That could be another neighbor's house, it could be a park, a nearby fast food place... just someplace that you all know to go to,” Benthien says.

If the disaster strikes during school hours, children may not be able to leave without a parent or guardian, so meeting at school might be the best option for families with kids.

4. Practice makes perfect

You don't need a real earthquake to fine tune your earthquake communication plan.

Families can run a test drill on a weekend to make sure everyone knows how to check in and where to meet up.

Try pretending texts don't work or maybe pretend only out-of-state calls work. The more familiar everyone is with the plan the easier it will be for them to remember what to do in stressful situations.

Also, make sure to share your plan with close friends and colleagues so that if you are unable to connect with your family for some reason, that person can notify your kin.