How to Prepare for (and Survive) an Earthquake

How to Prepare for (and Survive) an Earthquake
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Photo: SDubi (Shutterstock)

It’s Monday morning, so let’s talk about disasters! This week’s disaster is the earthquake. These seismic catastrophes are the most deadly of all natural disasters.

An average of 60,000 people die due to quakes in a given year, a fact made doubly tragic because so many of those deaths could have been prevented through simple engineering: Most earthquake deaths are caused by collapsing buildings, but we know how to build virtually earthquake-proof structures. Those practices just haven’t been fully implemented in developing countries.

Understanding earthquakes is the key to surviving one

An earthquake is the result of seismic waves caused by a sudden release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust. Tectonic plates grinding together for hundreds of thousands of years build up massive amounts of tension that can be released at once in a violent series of waves that shake the very foundations of the earth. (Earthquakes are absolutely terrifying.)

California, Alaska and Hawaii are in the most danger from quakes in the US, but nowhere is entirely safe. There’s just a lower probability of an earthquakes in places like the Midwest and Northeast. Check out this map to see how likely a quake is where you live.

If you live in a seismic death-zone like Los Angeles (like me), you should take earthquake preparedness very seriously—it’s going to happen and it could be extremely bad. If you live somewhere stable, you should prepare too, because, hey, you never know.

What to do before an earthquake hits

Preparation is the key to surviving most kinds of natural disasters, and it is particularly important for earthquakes, because they arrive with so little warning.

Making sure you’re ready for the “big one” (and the less-big ones) means making a plan: preparing your home for the quake, knowing what do when the shaking starts, and knowing what to do when the shaking is over.

How to make your home more earthquake safe

In the United States, most earthquake-prone places have building codes designed to prevent the structural collapses that take the most lives in earthquakes—but even if your walls and roof hold up, a house can still be deadly in a quake. The danger comes from falling or flying objects. In California’s Northridge quake in 1994, only 1 percent of injuries were caused by buildings collapsing, while 55% were caused by unsecured items in the home.

Start by looking around your home and imagining it shaking back and forth and up and down violently at a rate of several feet per second. How many things could be shaken loose that would kill you? That unsecured bookcase is a deathtrap; the heavy-ass, glass-framed painting over your couch could cut you to shreds if things get shaky.

Now take a little time—maybe do one or two thing a weekend—to secure everything. Literally everything.

Here are some specific things to think about, according to California’s Earthquake Country Alliance:

  • Hang plants in lightweight pots with closed hooks, well secured to a joist or stud and far away from windows.
  • Install strong latches on kitchen cabinets.
  • Use flexible connections where gas lines meet appliances.
  • Remove or lock refrigerator wheels, secure to studs.
  • Secure valuable electronics items such as computers and televisions.
  • Keep breakables in low or secure cabinets with latches.
  • Move heavy plants and other large items to floor or low shelves.
  • Hang mirrors and pictures and pictures on closed hooks.
  • Secure free-standing woodstove or fireplace insert.
  • Keep heavy unstable objects away from doors and exit routes.
  • Place bed away from windows or items that may fall.
  • Secure knick knacks and other small valuables with museum putty.
  • Brace overhead light fixtures.
  • Place only light weight/soft items over bed.
  • Secure top-heavy furniture to studs.
  • Secure water heater with metal straps attached to studs.
  • Trim hazardous tree limbs.

This is not a complete list by any means.

Prepare an “earthquake kit”

Once you’ve taken care of securing all the potential deadly projectiles in your home, gather these emergency items:

  • Store fire extinguisher (type ABC) in easily accessible location.
  • Keep several flashlights in easily accessible places around the house.
  • Keep wrench or turn-off tool in water proof wrap near gas meter.
  • Know the location of your main electrical switch (fuse box or circuit breaker).
  • Have your emergency plan accessible and discuss with all family members.
  • Know whether you live, work, or play in a tsunami hazard zone.
  • Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with the Public Alert feature to notify you of tsunamis and other hazards.
  • Keep flashlight, slippers and gloves next to beds.
  • Keep gas tank at least half full.
  • Keep an emergency backpack with copies of important documents near the door to grab and go.
  • Store emergency food and water supplies in a dry accessible area. Include first aid kit, extra cash, portable radio, extra batteries, medications and other necessary supplies.

Get an ‘early’ earthquake warning 

Unless you are psychic, you will not have much warning that an earthquake is going to hit, but you might get a five-second or so head start if you subscribe to an earthquake warning system like California’s My Shake app. (Apple, Android)

A few seconds may not seem to be much time, but it’s long enough to scramble under a heavy table, brace yourself ,and say a quick prayer.

What to do when the shaking starts: Drop, cover, hold on

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Remember, the danger from earthquakes is most likely to come from falling or flying objects and/or you falling, so earthquake survival is based on protecting yourself. The best protection: Drop, Cover, Hold On.

  • Drop: Get down on your hands and knees when you feel the first shake. This way you won’t fall, and you’ll be ready to crawl under a nearby desk or table. Exception: If you are in bed, stay there. Put a pillow over your head and wait it out.
  • Cover: Put one hand over your neck and head, because you must, as the Wu Tang Clan taught you, Protect Ya Neck. Then crawl under a strong desk or table if one is nearby. If there isn’t one handy, crawl toward an interior wall, not an exterior wall. Exterior walls have windows and windows are not good in this situation. Stay on your hands and knees with your hand covering your neck and to protect both your skull and your vital organs.
  • Hold on: Hold on to your desk or table with one hand and keep the other over your neck and head. Be ready to shift with the desk or table you’re clutching onto for dear life. Think to yourself, “how long can this go on? Surely it must stop soon!” but wait until it’s really stopped to move.

If you have a disability, here are some resources. 

What not to do during an earthquake

  • Run outside or into other rooms: Remain inside if you are inside and outside if you are outside. Generally, moving about is liable to make you fall. You’re going to fall if you even try to stand in a big quake, so take the initiative and get down.
  • Stand in a doorway: “Stand in a doorway” is an outdated an ineffective piece of earthquake advice. In modern homes, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house. Cowering under a sturdy table or desk is a way better choice.

What if you’re not at home during a quake?

The same Drop, Cover, Hold On rule applies if you’re at work or inside a public place, but here’s what do in other situations:.

  • Outdoors: Move to a clear area if it is safe to do so, away from power lines, trees, signs and any other potential hazards. Then drop, cover, and hold on.
  • Driving: Pull over safely. Set your parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards if you can. Stay in the car until shaking stops. Then drive home slowly with your caution-meter on 9,000—there could be any number of hazards after a quake.
  • At the beach: If you’re near the shore when a quake hits, you need to worry about tsunamis. When the shaking stops, head to high ground. Like right away. Don’t wait for any kind of official confirmation. Just go.

For more location-specific earthquake tips, check out Earthquake Country’s website.

What to do immediately after the shaking stops

When the earth stops shaking, the danger is not over. Sorry; it’s going to be a really bad day.

  • If you are trapped: Maybe I was wrong and your house collapsed. If so: protect your mouth, nose, and eyes from dust. Try to signal any way you can, whether it’s with your emergency whistle (that I’m sure you carry at all times), a cell phone call, or loud knocking. Knock three times every few minutes on a solid piece of the building so rescuers can find you.
  • Head to high ground if you are in a tsunami zone: Earthquakes often lead to Tsunamis. Check out my Guide to Surviving a tsunami for detailed info on how to not be swept away by a tsunami’s water. Again, do not tarry or wait for anything. Move quickly as soon as it is safe.
  • Tend to the injured: If anyone in your home is hurt, perform first aid. Call for an ambulance, but don’t expect one to show up right away. They will be busy.
  • Fires: Fires are a huge secondary danger from earthquakes. If there’s a small fire in your home and you’re uninjured, know what you’re doing, and remember where your extinguisher is, put it out. If it’s a large fire, evacuate. Call for help, but don’t expect the fire department to show up any time soon. They’ll be busy.
  • Check for signs of leaking gas: You should only close the gas valve if you suspect a leak—if you see a broken pipe, smell gas, or see the meter spinning quickly, turn off the gas. If not, leave it on.
  • Check for damaged wiring: If there is damage to your house’s wiring, shut everything down at the main breaker.
  • Don’t use candles or a lighter: Use flashlights only after a quake. You could start a fire accidentally or, even worse, blow yourself up if theres a gas leak.
  • Note other hazards in your home: The massive upheaval of tectonic plates is likely to rearrange your environment significantly. Take a moment, take a breath, and access the damage. There is likely to be broken glass everywhere, spilled liquids of all kinds including chemicals, broken masonry, and other terrible destruction. Don’t be dumb and hurt yourself after the quake.

For more details on after-quake best practices, check out this page from Earthquake Country.

What to do over the next few days

  • Let people know you’re OK: Everyone is worried, but your cell service might go down, so make a call to someone out of the area so they can tell others you’re doing alright. Conserve your cell batteries.
  • Check on your neighbors: Especially if they’re older or have any disabilities. (This implies you like your neighbors, of course. If not, eff ‘em.)
  • Determine if your house is safe: If you’re worried that your home is unsafe, don’t chance it. FEMA is already setting up their shelters, and they’d love to see you.
  • Stay informed: Keep up with local radio and television reports on where to get emergency food, clothing, shelter, and first aid.
  • Food and water: If your power is off, eat frozen and refrigerated food first, canned food last.
  • Document: Take pictures of your messed up house so you can file insurance claims.

The aftermath

Hopefully, civil society will be restored in your community relatively quickly. When it is, make sure you post pictures of your damaged home on social media. Promise you will rebuild! Ask yourself why you even moved to San Diego in the first place. Marvel over how strangers came together to help strangers, or curse uncaring humanity for its indifference (depending on your experience.) Consider all the ways your earthquake plans failed, and either vow to do better next time, or decide that you are too small to fight fate, and that the Great Earthquake of Death will claim you no matter how many battery powered radios you own. Hopefully, your earthquake trauma will fade and become a funny story you can tell at a bar. Until the next one hits.

  

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