A teacher at Sunny Brae Middle School shows students a seismograph during the Great California Shakeout in 2016. (Natalya Estrada — The Times-Standard file)
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The Redwood Coast Montessori school in Arcata will make for the “high dunes” on Thursday at 10:18 a.m. Over at the National Weather Service in Eureka, the thunderous sound of an earthquake will ring out through the public address system at the same time.

Meanwhile, at Arcata High School, the question of the hour will be, “Where would you go if an earthquake hits right now?”

It’s a relevant question as the Great California Shakeout, the annual universal earthquake drill, gets underway. Since 2008, the drill has given nearly 10 million people across the state a chance to prepare for an earthquake, according to the official Shakeout website.

Why such a coordinated form of preparation?

“My perception and one reason I have implemented drills at the county office is that when you go through process and procedure of the drill, whether it’s earthquake or fire, when the actual emergency happens, you have this muscle memory, the body memory,” said Jen Fairbanks, the coordinator of instructional support at the Humboldt Office of Education.

“You go through the motions, and if you don’t practice, it becomes chaos,” Fairbanks added.

It’s a lesson everyone should remember, especially in a more seismic area like Humboldt County, said Lori Dengler, former Humboldt State University geology professor, at the Tuesday county Board of Supervisors meeting.

During the Shakeout, participants go through the standard “drop, cover and hold on” motions. It’s not safe to simply run out of the room; staying in place and finding sufficient cover is often much safer for everyone around.

Over at the schools, it’s not just the students who take part in the drill, said Mark Sahlberg of Arcata High.

“The people in the office will be doing the drop, cover and hold,” he said. “It’s great. It keeps everybody focused. We now know what we’re going to do in a real event.”

Bryan Little of the Redwood Coast Montessori said the students know to make for the high ground — the higher dunes above the lower areas of the peninsula that are at risk of flooding. Because of that geological element, he said, the school runs drills often.

“We mix it up,” he said. “Sometimes after school, in the mornings on other days. There’s an element of surprise. It ups the ante.”

Earthquakes are not the be-all, end-all of disasters, said Troy Nicolini of the National Weather Service in Eureka.

“If the earthquake lasts quite a while and it’s strong, we recommend people get to high ground,” Nicolini said. “This is a great opportunity for people to ask themselves if they’re in a tsunami zone.”

While the stakes are serious, Nicolini said, it doesn’t have to a morbid activity.

“Have a good time!” he said. “Preparing for these things shouldn’t be scary. It should make people less afraid and reassure them that they can take steps to be safe.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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