The most frightening thing about earthquakes is they happen with no warning.  One minute the world is normal, and the next you are in an unstable world where everything is falling on your head.  If you live in a wood frame house the odds are your house will not collapse.  Modern apartments and other building are typically reinforced to withstand an earthquake without collapsing.  More details about the effects of earthquakes on specific building materials are found at the Berkeley University site.

The best thing you can do to protect your family from the effects of an earthquake is to prepare.  The more prepared you are the less anxiety your family will have before it happens – and the easier recovery will be.  It is so much easier to prepare than to worry endlessly about what you would do if it happened, so just do it.  Set specific tasks and the dates they will be accomplished .  This page will walk you through what you need to do to prepare your family and loved ones for a earthquake.   Following these steps will prepare you both physically and emotionally for this eventuality.   Steps 1-3 deal with preparing, step 4 with surviving, and step 5 with the aftermath.


Step 1: Secure it

The first thing to do is to walk around your house looking for things that will attack you during an earthquake.  Bookshelves, entertainment centers, TVs, bookcases, dressers,  etc.  These should all be secured to the wall to prevent  them from jumping on top of you and squishing your brains out.  Here is a secure it now worksheet from Emergency Survival Program to help out.  You can secure these items with an L bracket screwed into the wall (make sure you hit a stud and not just the sheet rock) or nylon straps which will allow the object to sway without falling on your face.  It is important to understand that during an earthquake the forces of gravity are adjusted so that your face becomes the center – and all loose items are drawn to it.  If you like your face the way it is you need to secure any loose items.

Another appliance to check is the water heater and gas pipes leading to it.  If the gas lines to the water heater break during an earthquake your house could go KABOOM!!.  This is bad.  Now you have an earthquake, explosion, and fire to cope with.  First make sure the water heater is strapped to the wall.  Second, make sure the gas lines coming in are flexible (if not find a contractor to fix this ASAP).  Third, make sure the gas pipe coming into the flex line is secured.  For example, my gas line comes down from the ceiling in a metal pipe, then connects to a flexible hose before connecting to the water heater.  If the metal pipe is allowed to swing too widely it could tear loose from the flexible hose.  You can secure this with bungee cords.

Cupboards containing items that could fall and break should be secured.  Those who have had inquisitive young children have learned that child proofing their cupboards prevents child induced mishaps, this same technology can prevent earthquakes from spilling all your plates and glasses all over your kitchen floor.  Cupboards can be secured by attaching a childproof clip on the inside of the cupboard.  Look for childproofing supplies and follow the directions.

One of the major problems wood frame homes have during an earthquake is shifting off the foundation.  It is hard if not impossible to fix this, condemning the home.  Modern building codes address this by strapping the house to the foundation.  Check the building codes in your area and see if your house has the frame strapped to the foundation.  If not you may be at risk.  Consult a reputable builder in your area to see if it is worth having this done.


Step 2: Make a plan

When an earthquake happens you will either be awake or asleep.  At home, or somewhere else.  Same with your spouse and children.  Where will everyone be when the earthquakes hits?  What should they do?  Where should they go?  What parent will pick up what child?  We have four kids and at one point they went to four different schools.  Your earthquake plan should address these different options.  More details about making a plan are found at the USGS site.

Included is this step is insurance.  Do you have earthquake insurance?  If you want it you need to check your insurance carrier to see what is covered and what the deductible is.  A 20% deductible is not uncommon.  With a $200,000 house that is $40,000 worth of  initial damage that the insurance will not cover.  What about brick on the outside or replacement of possessions inside the house?  Check with your carrier so you understand what is covered and what is not.

Important notes for your plan:

  • The phone system will be swamped and unusable. In past earthquakes it was 8-10 hours before people could use the phone and call another.
  • Traffic could be deadlocked because of fallen debris, road damage, etc. Have alternative routes to get to where you are going and alternative modes of travel.


Step 3: Get your Earthquake bag

Everyone should have disaster supplies stored at home, with a smaller travel size kit in the car and at school.  Besides your Earthquake bag your kit should include: cash, medications, extra clothing, spare glasses or contacts.  Here is a worksheet on putting together your disaster kit.  Here is a detailed discussion about cash.

Part of preparation is making sure that major thoroughfares in the house are safe.  When an earthquake happens children will run to their parents bedroom.  Is this path safe?  Are there pictures on the wall that could fall and break glass on the floor?  Are the furnishing secured so there will be a clear path for the children?  Related to this is making sure that everyone has shoes under their bed and a flashlight in an accessible location.  Everyone should be trained to put on shoes and find their flashlight before moving around the house.  Stepping on broken glass and other obstacles is very bad for bare feet.

Required preparation items include:

  • Water: Water storage and filtering is critical for your health and survival and a more complete description of it is here.
  • Food: Food is important because without it you get hungry and very irritable.  In an earthquake roads and electricity could be damaged, delaying the transportation of food supplies. You should have at least 2 weeks of food on hand.  More details on food are found here.
  • First aid supplies: In any disaster the medical establishment will be overwhelmed with the injured.  You might need to treat non-life threatening injuries yourself for the first few days.

Important items include:

  • Power supply: in any disaster the power could go out and be off for several days.  How will you recharge your cell phone?  What about batteries for your flashlights? More detailed information about power is here.
  • Light:  Everyone will want their own light.  Expect your loved ones to have flashbacks and panic attacks after for days after the earthquake.  Light is very comforting and will help the children find you when they are having a bad night.
  • Stove: You have stored food – how will you cook it?  If you need to boil water how will you do so?  Having a stove could be really handy because even canned food tastes better warm then cold from the can.

Optional items include: Sleeping bag, tent, and fire starter.


Step 4: Drop, cover, and hold on

Remember that where ever you are your environment will be trying to kill you.  Try to stay calm and be safe. If inside a building stay indoors. Learn to drop under cover and hold on.  Cover could be a desk or table.  I have heard you should take shelter in doorways, but friends who have done this during an earthquake tell me the door then beats them to pieces.  So be forewarned about doorways that include a door. If nothing else is available duck and cover your head by a hallway wall. Hallways are safer than rooms. Do not leave the building because it is possible for building parts to come off and fall during an earthquake or an aftershock.

If outdoors move to an open area away from buildings, trees, power lines, and moving traffic. If driving pull over if you can do so safely. Avoid driving on overpasses and avoid power lines. If a power line comes down on your car stay put. If you touch the ground and car at the same time (by getting out) you will ground yourself and get shocked. You should never touch a metal object that has power lines touching it.


Step 5: Check it out

First make sure that you survived the beating.  An earthquake is all about the world around you trying to beat and smash you.  Did you survive it intact?  Next check the other people in your house or location.  Any serious injuries?  After the people (I count my dog in the people category) check all gas outlets.  Do you smell gas?  If you smell gas be sure to turn off the gas to the house.  If you do not smell gas (and check again after a couple hours) you should not turn your gas off.  My friends who lived through earthquakes warned me that turning the gas off requires the gas company to come out and turn it back on.  This could be weeks after the earthquake.  They also said that some people did not wait and turned the gas on themselves.  Those that missed lighting a pilot light were greeted with an explosion once the gas from the unlit pilot light built up and exploded.

After the earthquake you may evacuate the building. Move far enough away so that if it collapses you will not be affected.

The last point about surviving through an earthquake is self-protection.  This is optional and is left up to the individual.

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