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How to Prepare for and Survive Earthquakes

Earthquakes are a matter of when, not if. The U.S. Geological Survey says 143 million Americans live where damaging earthquakes can occur. Yet the majority of people are unprepared because of complacency, denial, or ignorance: the recipe for becoming a victim. We’ve spent over 30 hours — on top of years of experience as emergency preparedness instructors — putting this one-page guide together so you won’t be helpless.

earthquake emergency preparedness map risk

It’s hard to believe: earthquakes affect all 50 states. The worst scenarios threaten primarily the West Coast, which has tectonically feuded with faults and plates for eons. But other spots like Oklahoma, Nevada, Wyoming, St. Louis, Memphis, Charleston, and Anchorage are in the danger zone, too.

Seismologists and emergency management leaders are growing increasingly worried, and speaking out more publicly, about the risk of long-overdue “Big Ones” — the nasty quakes on the scale of magnitude 7.0 to 9.9 that will devastate millions of people.

Earthquakes are tough because we don’t see them coming a week in advance the way we can track a hurricane’s menacing, colorful swirl on a Doppler radar.

Despite advances in seismology and technology, we can’t yet predict earthquakes. Even though sensors and alert systems are getting better, they might give you only 5-30 seconds of warning.

Don’t rely on strange animal behavior to alert you, either.

Part of The Prepared’s Sane Prepper Rules is accepting that you can’t predict what will happen or where you’ll be. You can’t assume the roads will be fine. Or that you’ll have time to run to the grocery store or fill the bathtub or have electricity and running water.

We talked with Chris Ipsen, an emergency management coordinator with the City of Los Angeles. He said plainly, “People need to plan for the worst case scenario. Plan on not getting anywhere. You need to be self sustained.”

The goods news is that with some simple preparation, such as getting your home ready for two weeks of self-supported survival, you drastically increase your chances of comfortable survival.

Why you should trust us

We spent 31 hours researching earthquake preparation for this post. This includes FEMA, state, and local guidelines for communities from Seattle to San Diego, and lessons learned from severe quakes here and abroad.

We interviewed emergency management officials, including from hot spots like Los Angeles. In addition, some of the authors have lived and taught prepping skills in San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles.

Prepping basics you should have for every scenario

Whether you are worried about earthquakes, hurricanes, or fascist alien zombies, every good prep has 80% or more of the same foundation. For example, having two weeks of water in your home is a great idea for a very wide range of possible emergencies.

Our prepping 101 checklist focuses on three goals:

  • Be able to survive in your home for two weeks. No grid, no outside help.
  • Be able to evacuate your home in a moment’s notice. (Bug Out Bags)
  • Be able to get home, or get to safety, if disaster strikes when you’re away from home. (Get Home Bags)

If you’re on a tight budget or don’t know where to start, follow our beginner’s guide. It will help you prioritize things like water and suggests exactly the gear you can buy today.

The rest of this guide focuses on gear and knowledge specific to earthquakes above and beyond that basic foundation.

How to prepare your home for earthquakes

Reduce dangerous things that will fall during an earthquake

One of the easiest steps you can take this weekend is to secure things that will fall.

Let gravity be your interior design guide. Don’t hang items over your bed. Secure pictures and frames. Bolt shelves to walls. Put heavier objects on lower shelves. Install latches on your cabinets so you’re not dodging dinner plate shrapnel.

Take annual videos of your possessions

It’s always a good idea to take a simple video of the things you own. As part of your annual prep review, take 20 minutes and walk around your house with your cellphone camera rolling. Point out anything valuable that you would want replaced.

Having evidence of the things that need to be replaced makes the process of insurance claims much easier. Imagine being an insurance claims adjuster after an earthquake — you’d wonder if the people claiming their $3,000 TV was destroyed even owned that TV in the first place.

Even if you don’t have insurance that would cover an earthquake, sometimes there are extra government or non-profit relief programs that step in to fill the gap. Having your records in order can shave months off the process.

Earthquake insurance

Homeowners or renters insurance usually doesn’t cover earthquake damage. Earthquake coverage is a separate product, much like flood insurance.

California is the only state that mandates insurance companies offer earthquake coverage to people who buy residential policies. Purchasing it is voluntary. For Californians, we recommend checking out a public-private program, the California Earthquake Authority, which offers policies with deductibles of 5% to 25%. But the actual coverage is underwritten by your individual insurance outfit. The premiums are based on the reconstruction value of your home, not the appraised value. No other state has a similar program.

Statewide, only about 10% of Californians enroll in earthquake coverage. To the north, about 19% of Oregonians, and between 12-15% of Washingtonians are earthquake-insured.

Not all earthquake insurance is the same, so take the time to understand what a policy covers.

Fracking-related quakes are considered to be caused by humans, for example. In places like Oklahoma, there’s been tension about what qualifies as “natural earthquake” damage in a claim.

For renters, buy supplemental earthquake coverage. Don’t expect your landlord’s or property owner’s insurance to cover you.

Retrofit your home to survive the earthquake

There’s a range of retrofits you can make to older buildings that make a huge difference between total collapse and just a few bumps and bruises. In short, the more a home is “tied together” from foundation to roof, the more likely it will survive.

Countries like Japan and Chile have done an excellent job developing and enforcing earthquake construction codes. Beyond saving lives, strict building code also saves tons of money in the long run.

Although states and cities have varying levels of codes, in general, America has struggled to even study how many buildings are at risk of collapse. The head of the Washington National Guard, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, recently told Northwest Public Radio, “I think we should start sooner, and I’m very concerned about the unreinforced masonry buildings that we have.”

Unreinforced masonry buildings, which are brick, stone, or adobe structures, can crumble to a pile. For these brick homes, retrofits often mean tying the walls to the floor and roof, adding a steel frame, and bolting the wall to it.

If your home was built before 1974, it’s possible your home isn’t built to withstand earthquakes at all. The Uniform Building Code (now the International Building Code), which an international brain-trust of engineers updates every few years, is the basic construction blueprint enforced by many states and cities. The code first specified seismic design criteria in 1973.

Wood homes tend to fare better than concrete or brick because wood has some natural flexibility. But even pre-1970s stick built homes typically aren’t secured to the foundations.

crawl space cripple wall earthquake brace bolt foundation anchor bolts california earthquake authority
The brace and bolt method of securing a home keeps houses from sliding off foundations — via California Earthquake Authority

The most common retrofits for making homes earthquake-ready are:

  • Bolting the house to its foundation
  • Reinforcing (bracing) cripple walls with plywood
  • Bracing the hot water tank with metal strapping
  • Bracing your chimney
  • Installing auto-shutoff valves on the gas meter

There are programs and grants that might help you cover retrofit costs.

In California, the Earthquake Brace & Bolt program offers grants to qualifying homeowners based on a lottery system to help pay for retrofits.

Cities along the West Coast have some form of mandates or standards for retrofits. For example, Santa Monica, California, passed in 2017 the country’s most extensive retrofit plan to include concrete tilt up, soft story, steel moment frame, non-ductile concrete, and unreinforced masonry. It’s more inclusive than the ordinance of its neighbor, Los Angeles. However, retrofits are voluntary for homeowners in Oregon and Washington.

Be ready to shut off your gas or install an auto-shutoff valve

Fires are one of the biggest risks after a quake. Be sure you know where your gas valve is and how to turn it off.

Find a wrench that you know works with your valve and keep it in your nearby emergency supplies. That way you can manually shut off the gas after a quake. Be aware that a utility guy or gal will have to turn it back on.

If you smell gas or hear a leak, shut off your gas (unless you have an auto-shutoff valve). Quakes often cause gas leaks, which lead to fires.

Typical example of where you would shut off your gas:

gas meter valve automatic shutoff manual shutoff earthquake leak
Your gas meter is on the exterior of your home. It looks something like this.

Consider a seismic automatic shutoff valve. In some places (like L.A.) they are required by ordinance for homes that are sold. You can get one installed for about $300-$500.

little firefighter automatic shutoff shut off gas valve gas meter earthquake los angeles
These valves automatically shut off when they detect an earthquake.

With an adjustable wrench, give the manual valve a good turn. It’s on the input side of the meter, coming out of the ground.

manual gas shutoff valve adjustable wrench earthquake los angeles
Note: you can turn it off, but utility personnel must turn it back on.

Storing your supplies

Assuming you’ve built up your basic emergency preparedness supplies, are there any special considerations about storing supplies for earthquakes?

Remember the biggest issue with earthquakes is the shaking and falling. So try to put your supplies in the safest, lowest place possible that is still easily accessible. There’s also no point in putting supplies on the floor if there’s a shelf full of heavy stuff above that will fall and crush them.

For example, store supplies on the floor of your garage underneath a sturdy and secured workbench. If you’re in an apartment, use the floor of a closet that’s closest to your exit door.

Like any good prep, keep your supplies properly stored. That means potable water should be in dark, food grade plastic — see our review of the best water containers for preppers. Supplies should be easy to move, so keep them in portable, sturdy bins or backpacks.

A good Bug Out Bag should be quick and easy to grab and go at a moment’s notice. That’s especially true for earthquakes. Try storing your bag and a good pair of shoes as close to the exit door as possible.

Since it’s a good idea to have multiple flashlights in the house, keep some with your core supplies, but keep others scattered around the house. A bedside nightstand is perfect.

What you should do during an earthquake

Some places in the world are developing, or have, warning systems. ShakeAlert in California, for example, might give you a 10-60 second warning through your phone.

In most cases, an earthquake will surprise you with a jolt. There is essentially no time to do anything other than get to the best, closest place to survive.

The most important thing in any emergency scenario: don’t panic! Having a clear head is one of the biggest factors between people who survive and those who don’t. That’s easier said than done, since it’s not everyday the whole world shakes around you.

To practice, once in awhile just imagine that things suddenly start shaking. Visualize it. What would you do if it happened right now?

Things falling is the largest killer during an earthquake.

No matter where you are, that’s the thinking you should burn into your brain. Things are falling. Get cover.

Take a look at these clips from the 6.9 magnitude 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California:

Notice how quickly the overhead lights start falling on top of the students? That’s why the most fundamental earthquake advice is to drop and cover.

Here are office workers in the 7.8 magnitude 2016 Ecuador earthquake:

They’re sitting by an open door at street level. The first shakes hit quickly, and they immediately run outside. But we can’t tell what’s above them, and you can actually see electrical sparks flying from the transformers shaking loose above their head.

Or this 2016 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in New Zealand:

Even though this was relatively mild (especially for a 7.8) and it didn’t even knock the pictures off the wall, their mistake was waiting too long to get cover. The first 40 seconds are relatively mild. We’re not suggesting you start screaming, but you shouldn’t sit there waiting for things to get worse. Thankfully, they do the right thing and get under their desks once things got serious.

We don’t believe in long checklists you’ll never remember in the moment. But here’s the official advice based on where you are:

Indoors:

  • Drop down to the ground on your hands and knees. A strong enough quake will knock you over anyway.
  • Cover your head. Crawl underneath a sturdy desk or table for shelter. If no shelter is nearby, crawl next to an interior wall. Avoid windows.
  • Hold on until the quake calms.
  • Avoid elevators and windows if you’re in a high-rise.
  • Avoid doorways. They don’t protect you from falling or flying objects. Modern doorways aren’t any more robust than the rest of a house.

Outdoors:

  • Get away from buildings, power lines, signs, traffic lights, and sinkholes.
  • Once in an open area, get your body down low (to keep from being knocked down by strong shaking) and stay there until the shaking stops.

Driving:

  • Pull over and stop. Don’t park under trees, overpasses, or bridges if possible.
  • Pull your parking brake, and wait for the shaking to stop.
  • Proceed carefully, avoiding cracked pavement and debris.
  • Stay inside if a power line falls on your car, and wait until utility or rescue personnel remove it. Don’t drive over downed power lines.

If you’re in bed:

  • Don’t get up.
  • Lie face down.
  • Cover your head and neck with a pillow.
  • Hold on to your head and neck with both hands until shaking stops.

There’s a shelter-in-place tactic called the “Triangle of Life,” which suggests getting yourself near a sturdy object, like a cabinet. The idea is you can survive in the void created by the floor, a sturdy object, and a piece of ceiling or wall that falls.

It’s wrong. Don’t do it. It might work in other countries where buildings pancake collapse because their building codes aren’t robust, but not in the U.S.

What you should do after an earthquake

You’re just as likely to die in the time after an earthquake as you are during one. Fires, tsunamis, disabled utilities, impassable roads, injuries, and overwhelmed emergency services make for a bad scenario.

As soon as the shaking has stopped:

  • Always take care of yourself first, then your family, then others. Don’t create another hurt body that someone else needs to take care of.
  • Grab your Bug Out Bag or Get Home Bag. This is your survival insurance policy. If it’s on your back, then no matter what happens next, you’ll have what you need to survive.
  • Get outside, away from things that can fall on you in an aftershock. Don’t use elevators. If you’re driving, park your car in a safe place.

Then:

  • If there are small fires, grab your fire extinguisher (you have a current one, right?) and earn those Prepper Points.
  • If it’s safe to do so, turn off your gas and electrical breakers.
  • Use your car radio or emergency radio to get informed. For example, if you need to leave your home, radio can point you to the nearest shelter.
  • Let others know you’re OK. Update your Facebook status or their Safety Check feature.
  • Send a text message — SMS is the most likely way to squeak through a clogged network.
  • Update your outgoing voicemail intro with a message that you’re OK and what you’re planning to do.
  • Use your head. Don’t try and hang up the wall-mounted TV that just shook loose, start a BBQ, or practice your unicycle knife juggling.

Aftershocks

“People don’t really understand or realize how damaging aftershocks can be,” said Ipsen. “They could go on for weeks. I was here for Northridge, and some of the aftershocks were actually worse than the initial quake.”

Aftershocks differ from earthquakes only in that we expect them.

Aftershocks can happen for weeks, months, or years. In general, the larger the initial quake (called the mainshock), the larger and more numerous the aftershocks, and the longer they will continue, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Omori’s modified Law is one theory that attempts to make sense of aftershocks. They are common immediately after the mainshock and decay in time with roughly the reciprocal of time since the mainshock. So, the second day has about 1/2 the number of aftershocks of the first day. The fifth day has about 1/5 the number of the first day, and so on.

Tsunamis

Underwater earthquakes can cause massive amounts of energy, which in turn creates tsunamis. You likely saw how much devastation the tsunami caused following the 2011 Japan earthquake:

For those in tsunami zones, particularly Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Alaska, getting to higher ground should be top priority. So grab your Bug Out Bag or Get Home Bag and get high — ideally on natural elevation instead of a building roof.

Find your tsunami zone:

If you are near water and you see that water moving backwards towards the open ocean: run!

As a tsunami approaches, it sucks away the water in front of it to support the big waves. There are countless videos of people walking out onto the beach, Instagramming the weird views of water retreating away from them as they walk on the coral. They usually die.

Here’s a video from the 2004 Thailand Tsunami:

“Maybe the earthquake affected the water?” … “Nah” … 🙁

Shelter-in-place vs. grab your Bug Out Bag and go

Think of staying in your home as the default choice. Most survival experts agree that it’s usually best to stay in your home.

You should only choose to leave home if there’s a good, calm-headed reason to do so. Maybe the structure is unsafe, there’s fire, and so on.

That’s a big part of why preparing to survive in your home for two weeks, without any outside help or utilities, is one of the basics of prepping. You would rather stay in place than have to trek on foot for 5-20 miles, through dangerous conditions, just to get drinking water.

Earthquake insurance usually covers the costs of a hotel or other shelter.

What things might be like after the quake

earthquake nisqually seattle 2001 van crushed bricks urm unreinforced masonry
Bricks and debris crushed a van in a Seattle parking lot after the 2001 Nisqually quake — Kevin Galvin/FEMA

In 2016 the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Washington state’s National Guard did a full-scale, nine-day drill to test how well they could respond to a massive earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. That area covers Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland through northern California.

The 83-page report comes to a lot of scary conclusions. The authors admit the systems are not ready, infrastructure would collapse, and they’d have a full-blown humanitarian crisis in ten days.

Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Emergency Management Division, put it simply: “There is an urgent need for residents to prepare for two weeks.”

On the ground

Everything has been torn and shaken. That means electrical lines and equipment might’ve fallen, creating sparks on the ground. Water lines might be broken and flooding. Ruptured gas lines might continually feed fires.

Roads and bridges might be destroyed. Sinkholes may have opened.

la cienega boulevard interstate 10 santa monica freeway earthquake collapse northridge 1994
A portion of I-10 (Santa Monica Freeway) collapsed on Venice Boulevard after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles — Robert A. Eplett/FEMA.

Communication networks are likely down or overloaded. You might not get solid information for a while. Radio is the reliable bet — check out our intro guide to Ham radio for prepping.

Expect emergency services to be overwhelmed. They simply aren’t meant to handle large disasters with hundreds of thousands or millions of people suddenly needing help.

You or others might be injured, or worse. If so, expect a sense of disoriented panic and people crying for help.

Long term recovery

Especially in a Big One scenario, government’s own reporting suggests that things will take a long time to get back to normal.

Here’s an example. The Oregon Resilience Plan, which reads like a Hollywood disaster movie script, provides these infrastructure restoration estimates under current conditions:

Critical service Valley (roughly I-5 corridor) Coast
Electricity 1-3 months 3-6 months
Drinking water & sewer 1 month-1 year 1-3 years
Schools 18 months 18 months
Police and fire 2-4 months 3 years
Healthcare facilities 18 months 3 years
Major highways 6-12 months 1-3 years
Telecommunications 6-12 months 6-12 months
Liquid fuel Extremely vulnerable Extremely vulnerable

Source: Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission

For a common bad-but-not-devastating earthquake, look to Chile and Japan, two nations that have recently endured seismic beatings.

After the 2010 magnitude 8.8 Maule Earthquake in Chile, the country restored 90% of communication and 95% power supply within two weeks. Flights resumed after 10 days.

After the 2011 magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake, Japan restored more than 90% power supply in ten days, 90% of telephone lines in two weeks, and 90% of cellular base stations in 19 days.
Insurance claims and relief programs

As soon as you’re able, begin the process of filing earthquake insurance claims, getting utilities restored, and recovering important documents.

If you’re properly prepared ahead of time, you can get the ball rolling on this quickly and efficiently. Because most other people won’t have the right records, you can slingshot to the front and in some cases get your relief payments months before other victims.

  • Jordan Feldstein

    > If it’s safe to do so, turn off your electrical breakers.
    > …
    > Update your voicemail intro with a message that you’re OK and what you’re planning to do.

    Never would have thought of either of these! Thanks

    • Thanks for saying so! I love things like the voicemail tip. So simple yet so easy and effective.

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