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Getting the earthquake safety message to Spanish speakers

Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
More than 600 of these low-cost seismic sensors are in place across communities in Los Angeles. Many are in LAUSD schools. The sensors connect via an ethernet cable.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Attendees learn about seismic sensors during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. The Laboratorio de Riesgo is put on by six organizations including Caltech, Pacîfico, Mujeres de la Tierra and the Community Seismic Network.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Seven-year-old Ebin Saavedra, left, learns from Asaf Inbal, a doctor of seismology at Caltech, about plate movement during an earthquake at an all-day bilingual Risk Lab on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. A brick and elastic band are used as an analogy of an earthquake's source on the fault line.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Dr. Pablo Ampuero, a Caltech seismology professor, uses blocks to explain earthquakes during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Attendees set up seismic sensors for volunteers to take home during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Volunteer locations include homes, schools, churches, offices, businesses and other settings.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
The community sensors help to provide data for constructing 3D geologic models of the ground underneath the sensors, which could help to influence land use policy and construction codes.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Girl Scouts from troop 16045 take part in a demonstration using slinkies as an analogy to ground shaking during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Nine-year-old Laylah Vielma of Lincoln Heights is part of Girl Scout troop 16045. Vielma works to set up a low-cost seismic sensor during a bilingual earthquake workshop on Aug. 27, 2016. Community Seismic Networks' seismic sensors are 1/100th the cost of an actual sensor. The sensors send data via an ethernet port.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Anthony Massari, a graduate researcher in Caltech's civil engineering department, discusses graphs from a Community Seismic Networks sensor during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Caltech's CSN distributes seismic sensors to volunteers free of charge across Southern California.
Attendees learn how to setup and look at data from low-cost seismic sensors during an all-day bilingual Risk Lab at Sotomayor Learning Academies on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27 2016. Sensors are used during an earthquake to provide realtime data on ground shaking to first responders.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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At 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, more than 10 million Californians will be asked to drop to the floor, crawl under a table and hold on to one of the legs. It’s part of the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill. But for foreign-born Latinos, their first instinct might be to flee the building, rather than duck, cover and hold — and that could put them in more danger.

Melina Perez, who was born in Mexico, ran into her yard when she was caught in an earthquake in Oaxaca in 2000. She remembered the disastrous Mexico City earthquake of 1985, when more than 400 buildings collapsed, including hospitals and multistory apartment buildings, trapping thousands of people in the rubble.

“It’s better to be standing in a space where there isn’t anything to fall,” she said.

But what works in Latin America isn’t necessarily the right thing to do in Southern California, said CalTech seismologist Pablo Ampuero, who was born in Peru and has witnessed people running outside their homes as soon as they felt shaking. 

“The construction practice in Peru is very variable, and many people build their own houses with their own hands,” he said.

But buildings in California generally don’t collapse in earthquakes. Instead, the greatest risk is from trying to run and tripping, or from being hit by falling or flying objects such as broken glass, flat-screen TVs or bookshelves.

"People come here with concepts and behaviors that we have learned in our countries, or we have inherited from our parents, and these are things that are the right thing to do there but not here,” Ampuero said.

Assuming you’re in a well-built, modern building, safety experts recommend “duck, cover and hold,” or "agacharse, cubrirse y agarrarse." Get low, crawl under a table or a desk, and hold on to one of the legs.  

Another key difference between earthquakes in Southern California and Latin America? Tsunamis. Most earthquakes in Central and South America are caused by undersea faults that move vertically, displacing water and creating huge waves. But here, most faults are inland and move horizontally, meaning there’s a much smaller risk of a tsunami.

However, Californians do have to worry about post-earthquake fires. Our cities are crisscrossed by natural gas pipelines that can break and explode. That’s not the case in many Latin American cities, where people run their appliances off of household propane tanks that are easy to turn off and are self-contained.

These differences can make it hard for foreign-born Latinos to know what to do in an earthquake in California, Ampuero said. Safety information in Spanish often isn’t much help because it is often a literal translation of the English version.

“The printed materials in Spanish are worthless to the Latino community because there’s no cultural perspective,” said Irma Muñoz, head of Mujeres de la Tierra, an environmental justice organization in East L.A. She partnered with Ampuero on a big idea: a science-based, hands-on workshop in Spanish where people can compare what happens in their native countries with best practices in California.

Muñoz proved to be an ideal partner. She has a history of bringing scientists into the community to talk about issues like oil and gas development. She finds it helps people to hear from experts.

“They have fear in their hearts,” she said. “They need to have facts in their head.”

On a recent Saturday, Ampuero dished out some of those facts in front of a largely Latino crowd at the School of History and Dramatic Arts in Glassell Park. Outside, there were plates of pan dulce and carafes of coffee. Two Boy Scouts were using a ratchet to pull a brick along sandpaper to simulate the forces of an earthquake. CalTech researchers were on hand to explain how that seismic friction produces unpredictable earthquakes.

Understanding how and why things happen was Perez’s favorite part of the workshop.

“I think the best thing was hearing it from people that study this, whose lives are dedicated to it,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘I think it’s like this,’ or, ‘Maybe…’ Because that’s what we are used to hearing in the community.”

She glanced down at her kids as they rubbed their eyes and slumped on the floor. Kids get bored of everything, she said, but she hoped these three hours on a Saturday would pay off next time there is an earthquake.