Earthquakes take place when rock buried deep underground suddenly breaks or moves in reaction to pent-up pressure. These shifts ripple to the surface, causing the ground to shake, sometimes violently. The result can range from nearly imperceptible tremors to devastation, destroying buildings, rendering roads unusable, altering the face of landscape, and bringing serious injury and death to communities.
Although some areas are more earthquake prone than others, earthquakes can take place anywhere, and the entire United States is susceptible to them. It is virtually impossible to tell when an earthquake will strike, so the best thing to do is make sure you are prepared ahead of time.
Preparation Before an Earthquake
- Create an emergency supply kit so your family has the necessary supplies needed if disaster strikes.
- Decide how your family will communicate, if you become separated during the emergency. Make sure each family member carries the others’ home and cell phone numbers, alternate emergency contacts (out of state relatives for example), as well as local emergency services’ phone numbers. Subscribe to alert message services, to get text messages, phone calls, or emails alerting you to emergency conditions.
- Organize and secure your shelves: Put heavier items on the lower shelves and attach the shelves securely to your walls.
- Store fragile items in enclosed cabinets that are low to the floor. Brace and secure objects that could tip over or that hang from the ceiling.
- Ensure that mirrors and pictures are stored in safe locations, away from places where people will congregate, in case of breakage.
- Hire construction experts to fix any faulty electric or gas lines in your home, to minimize the risk of fire. Have a plumber check your home's piping system for pipes that pose a particular risk of breaking during an earthquake. Where possible, get flexible pipe fittings installed, as these will be less susceptible to water or gas leaks. Find out if you should get an automatic gas and/or water shutoff valve installed in your home.
- Look for cracks in your foundation and ceilings. Have an expert look at them, make necessary repairs, and ensure that your house is attached securely to the foundation.
- Make sure that dangerous products like flammable liquids, pesticides, or weed killer are securely stored in latched cabinets that are low to the floor.
- Decide on the best places for your family to take shelter in your home, where you will be protected by things like strong tables or inside walls. Conduct earthquake drills with your family members.
What to do During an Earthquake
If You are Outside:
- Remain outdoors, and get away from things that could fall on you, like buildings, power lines, or streetlights.
- Keep in mind that most injuries and deaths from earthquakes are a result of people getting hit from falling objects. Stay away from items that could hit you.
If You are Indoors:
- Drop down low to the ground, cover yourself under the nearest strong table or other well-built furniture, and hold on until the earth stops shaking. If there is no sturdy place for you to take cover under, get in a crouching position in an inside corner of the building and cover your head with your arms.
- Keep away from windows, exterior doors and walls, glass of any kind, or items that could fall on you. If you happen to be in bed when the earthquake occurs, stay there and protect your head with a pillow, unless you are underneath a heavy lighting fixture or near a significant amount of glass. If so, move to a safer spot close by.
- Do not take shelter in doorways unless you are sure that they are strong, lead-bearing doorways.
- Stay indoors until the earthquake passes and it is safe to go outdoors.
- Do not use elevators, as they could break while you are trapped inside. Do not be surprised if automatic sprinklers turn on inside buildings or if the electricity goes out.
If You become Trapped Under Rubble
- Tap on walls or pipes to let rescuers know where you are. If you have a whistle, use it. Only shout as a last ditch effort, since you could inhale harmful dust while shouting.
- Do not move around. Refrain from kicking up dust. Do not ignite lighters or light a match, as broken gas lines or other flammable hazards could be nearby.
- Cover your mouth with clothing or a handkerchief to keep from inhaling dust.
If You are Driving:
- Stop the vehicle as quickly as is safely possible. Try to not stop near or underneath things that could fall, like trees, buildings, overpasses, or power lines.
- Once the earthquake stops, you can begin moving again, but be very cautious. Stay away from roads, ramps, and bridges that could have been damaged.
What to Do After an Earthquake
- Expect to feel aftershocks, which can range from minor tremors to dangerous secondary quakes.
- If you were inside during the earthquake, check to see if it safe to move around, then if so, get out of the building.
- Listen to emergency radio or television broadcasts if possible, for the most up to date information from authorities.
- Help people who are hurt or trapped. Where appropriate, administer first aid. Refrain from moving severely hurt people unless they are in imminent danger of becoming more injured if they do not move. Get help immediately.
- Be on the lookout for fires and put them out, or get help.
- Stay away from beaches, and if you live near a coast, be on the alert for potential tsunamis. If a tsunami warning is issued, get to high ground immediately.
- Only use the telephone for important emergency calls.
- Get to public shelters if it is no longer safe to stay in your home, and return home only when the appropriate authorities have said it is safe to do so. Stay away from areas that have been damaged. If you drive, be extra cautious and expect traffic lights to not work correctly.
- When you arrive back home, make safety your first priority. Keep your eye out for structural damage, objects that could potentially fall on you (off shelves, cabinets, etc.), and be aware of food that may have spoiled or become contaminated in your absence. Watch for sharp glass and other broken objects. It is a good idea to be fully covered when you are cleaning up your home: wear long pants, shoes that fully cover your feet, long sleeve shirts, and work gloves. Clean up any dangerous bleach, medicine, gasoline, or other spills right way.
- Check for gas leaks in and around your home. If you smell gas or other fumes, open a window and leave your home immediately. Turn your gas off at the outside valve if that is possible to do safely, and then call the gas company from another location (do not go back inside your house). Keep in mind, once the gas is turned off, it can only be turned back on by a professional.
- Have a chimney expert inspect your entire chimney, as damage could lead to a fire.
- Watch for damage to your home’s electrical system, like visible sparks, damaged wires, or the smell of hot insulation. If you notice damage or anything suspicious, turn off your home’s electricity at the main circuit breaker and call an electrician. If there is standing or spilled water in your home, do not step in it.
- Look for any signs of damage to your water lines or sewage system. If you notice damage to your water pipes, do not use tap water. Call your water company. Similarly, if you think your sewage system could be damaged, refrain from using the toilet and get an expert involved.
- Avoiding Hurricane Damage: A Checklist for Homeowners - http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/13737
- Guides on Protect Your Property from an Earthquake - http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/13237?id=3260
Image sources: Martin Luff, U.S. Geological Survey, Chuck Simmins, and Wikipedia
This article is intended for informational purposes only. Before beginning any construction project at your home or taking steps to prepare for an emergency, please ensure that you take necessary safety precautions; consult construction professionals, your local authorities, and disaster safety experts whenever necessary. Water Damage Defense accepts no responsibility for the actions you take during an emergency or as you prepare for one.