Earthquake Safety Guide
While major earthquakes are fairly rare within the United States, even minor earthquakes can damage property and cause injury. All Americans should be prepared for this eventuality. Earthquakes occur with no warning, at any time of day or night.
You may hear an increasingly loud roaring sound followed by an increasingly violent rolling sensation, or you may feel a single violent jolt and subsequent shaking. Either way, earthquakes have the capacity to injure either immediately, or as a result of the secondary consequences.
According to the Center for Disease Control, “the real key to surviving an earthquake and reducing your risk of injury lies in planning, preparing, and practicing what you and your family will do if it happens.” Knowing what to expect, and how to avoid the most common sources of injury will keep you and your family safer in the face of a potential disaster.
WHO SHOULD BE PREPARED?
Put simply, everyone in the United States should be prepared to deal with an earthquake. The vast majority of the U.S. population lives in earthquake prone areas.
States like California and Alaska experience the bulk of earthquakes, although according to U.S. government seismologists, between 2010 and 2015, 40 states experienced an earthquake of magnitude 3 or above.
Even if you don’t live in an area known for earthquakes, or on one of the well-known tectonic fault lines, periods of seismic activity can occur without warning. Historical prevalence of earthquakes is not always an indicator of future earthquake likelihood.
For example, between 2010 and 2013, Kansas experienced 2 earthquakes of above magnitude 3, but then had 60 in 2015. That said, the top five states for earthquakes in the period 2010 to 2015 were:
Along with the areas along the San Andreas Fault and Cascadia Subduction Zones on the West Coast, which are well known for large, damaging earthquakes, there are other parts of the United States that are at risk of a major earthquake.
The CDC has also predicted that there is a 97% of a major earthquake before 2035 in what’s known as the ‘New Madrid Seismic Zone’ encompassing territory in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
When it comes to earthquakes, however, it does not require a large, high magnitude event to cause serious damage and disruption to your life. Minor earthquakes can knock out power, disrupt infrastructure, and generally cause chaos. First and foremost, earthquake preparedness planning can help you survive an earthquake.
However, the right preparation can minimize the damage an earthquake plays on your life, and help you get back to your daily routine as quickly as possible.
The best time to think about earthquake preparedness was yesterday. The second best time is today.
When it comes to being ready for earthquakes, FEMA recommends grouping your strategy into two main approaches:
Disaster Preparedness Kit
The first is designed to help you survive the initial earthquake, and the second will help when it comes time to evacuate. Both are equally important, so take time today to survey your home and to put together a list of items for a kit.
MAKING YOUR HOME SAFER IN AN EARTHQUAKE
The majority of deaths and injuries from earthquakes come from falling objects. Being inside your home could and should be the safest place for you to be during an earthquake, but making your home as safe as possible is critical.
Take a walk-through of your home and address potential hazards. If you have children, involving them in this process will help them to know what to do in an earthquake. Since earthquakes can happen at any time of day or night, and often without warning, every room in your house must be earthquake proof. Here the old adage definitely applies: you must hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
FEMA recommends the following checklist by which you can identify hazards, and correct problems.
Secure furniture, fixtures, and appliances
During the shaking of an earthquake, large items like dressers, wardrobes, refrigerators, and even large hanging mirrors can fall, creating hazards throughout your home. Secure these to the wall with straps (often used for baby proofing), use closed hooks to hang things on the wall, and even replace heavy items with lighter alternatives.
All glass in windows, mirrors, and bottles should be secured, as should large mirror frames. Make sure that your mirrored medicine cabinets are securely latched; otherwise the shaking of an earthquake could cause it to shatter.
Fires are a common cause of damage post-earthquake, so FEMA recommends safely securing all flammable liquids (think oil, gas tanks, cleaning and painting products) either safely on a shelf, or on the floor. Keep the flammable items well clear of sources of fire, such as furnaces or water heaters, which should be strapped securely to the wall. This will help keep everyone safer and reduce the need for fire damage restoration on top of other damage to your home.
Structure of the house
Maintaining the safety of the house’s structure is critical in ensuring you remain safe during an earthquake. Check and secure all loose parts on the outside of the house, such as tiles and bricks. If necessary, brace walls and secure the foundations to the wall frames.
Each capable member of a family should know the location of the home’s electric panel and shut off valves for gas and water. This can be crucial in preventing further damage post-earthquake. Although the most dangerous leak post-earthquake is gas, damage to water pipes and electricity can cause serious issues such as flooding in your home and fires, so being able to shut them all off is vital.
Crawl spaces carry the entire weight of the house; if they are insufficiently braced, the walls of the crawl space can collapse during the movement of an earthquake. Should the bracing be insufficient, it can be improved through adding additional support, although it is best to check with a professional on the optimal means of doing so.
Because garage doors form a large weak point in the structure of a garage, earthquakes can cause them to collapse – particularly if there is a second story above the garage. Again, consult with a professional to determine how best to brace the wall around the garage door to boost structural soundness.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS KIT
Taking the time to make a disaster preparedness kit will hugely improve your prospects in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake. According to FEMA’s ‘Ready.gov’ website, a basic disaster preparedness kit should contain enough provisions with which to survive 72 hours.
Moreover, you should aim to put together three of these emergency kits: one for your home, one for your place of work or study (i.e. the place other than home you spend the most time), and one for your car.
A basic disaster preparedness kit will contain the following:
Three gallons of water per person
Three days’ worth of food
A portable radio, ideally a NOAA weather radio
First aid kit
Dust mask, plastic sheeting, & duct tape
Wet wipes, trash bags, & plastic ties
Maps of the area
Cell phone, charger, & backup battery
Importantly, you must ensure that you maintain your disaster preparedness kit, storing the items in a cool, dry place, and replacing items that expire. Generally, you should aim to take an inventory and check the status of your disaster preparedness kit once a year.
In addition, you should create a call-list of numbers for all commonly frequented places for you and your family (work, school, friends’ houses, etc.).
This should be a physical list, whether digital or on paper, that you can access in an emergency. You should also add the contact information of at least one individual who lives out of state. Everyone in your family should have a copy of this list.
WHAT TO DO DURING AN EARTHQUAKE
Whether you have prepared fully or not, knowing what to do while an earthquake is actually happening could be the difference between life and death.
As stated above, the best place to be is indoors, but you should be aware and informed about every possibility.
If you are indoors when an earthquake hits, you should immediately drop, cover, and hold on.
Most injuries during earthquakes take place either because of objects falling onto people, or because of people moving around and falling. Your goal should be to move as little as possible once you are in position during the earthquake. Do not move in any way until the shaking has stopped.
Protect your head and torso. The best way to do this is to get under a table, bed, or even a sturdy desk. If none of these is possible, lie face down on the ground and cover the back of your neck with your arms.
Get as close as possible to an interior wall of the building, as long as there are no loose fixtures or fittings immediately above you.
Remain in position until the shaking stops, and you have checked the immediate vicinity that it is safe for you to exit. Be aware that there may be aftershocks, and that an end to the shaking does not mean that it won’t return.
If you smell gas, you should exit the area once the shaking stops.
Assume that the infrastructure of the building is damaged, and use the stairs rather than the elevator to exit if you are in a location that has both. Smoke alarms and sprinklers systems may go off, although this does not necessarily mean that there is a fire. When you exit the building, check for falling debris before stepping out.
Remain constantly vigilant for falling items, even minutes and hours after the earthquake.
If you are outdoors when an earthquake hits, you should drop and hold on.
As with being indoors, the primary danger is being hit by falling objects. You should find a clear spot and drop to the ground. Lie on your front and place your hands over the back of your neck. Remain in place until the shaking stops.
Once the earthquake has abated, try to move to a location as far away from structures as possible. Particularly dangerous are trees, power lines, streetlights, and buildings.
Move to as open a space as possible; again, aftershocks may strike at any point, so be prepared to drop and hold on.
If you are driving, stop your vehicle in a clear location, away from structures like bridges, highway overpasses and power lines. Adopt the brace position within your vehicle (hands protecting the back of your neck).
Leave your seatbelt fastened until the shaking has stopped. Once it has stopped, you may continue driving, although exercise extreme caution, avoiding any structures like ramps or bridges that may have been damaged.
If a power line hits your car, do not attempt to drive, nor should you attempt to remove it yourself. Remain in place until further help arrives.
If you are outdoors in an area with cliffs or rocks, be aware of the chance of debris falling. Move to stable ground as quickly as possible, as earthquakes can cause landslides.
WHAT TO DO AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE
Once the initial earthquake has hit and abated, dangers still remain.
It is extremely important to continue to be vigilant in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake.
The following steps provide a guide to your course of actions once the initial earthquake has subsided:
Check yourself for injuries
If you are injured, determine the level of severity. If it is severe, you should get immediate first aid before proceeding with any other course of action. For a minor injury, you may be able to undertake first aid on yourself. Only after you have done this should you begin helping others who are injured or trapped.
Consider immediate danger
Earthquakes may cause secondary disasters. If you are by the coast, move immediately to higher ground, as there may be a chance of a tsunami. If you are in an area with a hill, landslides are a possibility, so you should move out of the area. Throughout the immediate aftermath, the chances of aftershocks are high.
Drop, cover, and hold on
If you feel an aftershock, take exactly the same action as you would during an earthquake. The first earthquake may have weakened structures without destroying them totally, so even though the shaking may be diminished, the damage may be greater.
Aftershocks can take places weeks or months after an earthquake.
Fire causes the most damage after an earthquake. If a fire is too large for you to extinguish, you should evacuate the area; however, if you can extinguish a smaller fire, you should do so.
Return home only when told
The authorities will tell you when it is safe for you to return home. Doing so prematurely may place you in danger, even if your home appears safe.
Ultimately, being prepared for an earthquake is never totally possible. Earthquakes can strike at any time, in almost any place, and with no warning.
However, you can greatly increase your chances of survival through long-term planning and short-term action. Knowing the common dangers from earthquakes is the first step in ensuring that you remain safe.
Every American should be prepared for an earthquake where they live. Even small earthquakes, far from fault lines can cause damage sufficient to cause injury and destruction.
Making your home earthquake safer need not be cost-prohibitive, nor does it require a large amount of expertise or time.
Remaining uninjured during an earthquake involves luck, but a sound and clear strategy can increase your chances of remaining safe.
Most importantly, being aware of your surroundings and of the potential dangers will minimize your chances of being injured in an avoidable manner.
For those with families, taking the time to plan and explain strategies will make everyone calmer and safer when an earthquake hits.
When it comes to earthquakes, the best strategy is to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Sources and Further Reading