I live in the basement of a typical 1950s frame house in North Portland. Thus, I sometimes lie awake in bed worrying that, in an earthquake, the whole house will fall in and kill me. Google is silent about what we basement folk should do in a quake. Any ideas? —Cellar Dweller
It's natural to think of your own death as a big deal, or at least an important life event. Given this, it's tempting to assume that this important event will also be dramatic and/or interesting. This is probably why we spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about exotic dangers like serial killers and terrorist attacks, while all but ignoring workaday killers like bacon, diarrhea and tripping on a rug while old.
By these lights, we figure if we're going to be killed by an earthquake, surely it will be in a scene of apocalyptic devastation worthy of Roland Emmerich. We imagine every building being completely flattened, burying the quake's doomed victims under tons of immovable rubble.
The good news is that the vast majority of American buildings are unlikely to collapse ("pancake" is the term of art), even in a severe earthquake. The bad news is that you're way easier to kill than you probably thought.
The real danger in a quake isn't being buried under your collapsed house, it's having the stuff in your house fall on or smash into your frail, non-Roland Emmerich-worthy body, compounded by the fact that whatever happens, help probably won't be able to reach you for a while.
This is why experts still promulgate the hoary advice "Drop, Cover and Hold." It's true that the kitchen table won't support the weight of your collapsing house, but it will keep that cast-iron chandelier from giving you a subdural hematoma.
Given that your home will probably still be standing (though it certainly may be damaged) after the quake, the basement shouldn't be any more dangerous than any other part of the house. Just duck under a table or desk like you would on the main floor.
And if you're in bed when the shaking starts, the official advice is just to stay there and put a pillow over your head—which is what you were going to do anyway.