Being caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake can be an especially frightening experience. Unlike extreme weather events, earthquakes come without warning, and can happen at any time. Preparing yourself ahead of time in the event an earthquake should strike is one of the best ways to make it through safely.
Where Earthquakes Happen Most in the US
Earthquake risk is higher along fault lines and identified seismic zones. In the United States, these hotspots for earthquake activity include the San Andreas Fault in California, the Cascadia Subduction Zone in western Oregon and Washington and Alaska, the New Madrid Fault Zone spanning areas in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and areas on the east coast including the mid-Atlantic, coastal South Carolina and New England. Data from the United States Geological Survey shows that Alaska and Oklahoma have the most earthquakes each year.
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While the risk is highest in these areas, Ready.gov notes that all 50 US states and five US territories are susceptible to earthquakes. Earthquakes can happen in any season, with most lasting less than a minute. Aftershocks — tremors felt after the initial earthquake — can occur for hours, days, or even months. While being in the midst of an earthquake can certainly be a frightening experience, the most recent data shows that in 2015 there were no fatalities associated with earthquakes in the United States.
Preparing Your Family for an Earthquake
Ready.gov advises people to complete key tasks ahead of an earthquake in order to ensure they’re prepared in the event of an emergency. They include:
- Securing items that could become a hazard in the event of an earthquake. Bookshelves, dressers, and televisions should all be secured. They also advise moving beds away from windows, and ensuring anything that hangs near beds or couches (such as blinds or photographs) are secured.
- Practicing “drop, cover, and hold on.” This earthquake drill can help save lives, and just as families practice their fire safety, they should also practice this earthquake drill. Have everyone in the home practice dropping to their hands and knees, covering their head and neck with their arms or hands (or getting under a table or desk), and holding on until the shaking stops.
- Build an emergency supply kit with essential medications, foods, documents, and water. Be sure to check expiry dates every so often and update or replace items as necessary.
- Create an emergency communication plan, and discuss it with your family. If communication systems or power is knocked out, how will you get in touch with loved ones?
- Learn where your home’s gas, water, and electric shut-off systems are, and how to use them. Keep any required tools, such as a wrench, close to the area.
- Having a structural engineer evaluate your home can identify any weak spots so you can strengthen them before disaster strikes.
Above all, ensure that everyone in the home knows your emergency plan and is prepared in case of an earthquake. Discuss meeting places, exit routes, and safe spots in the home. Going over the plan, and practicing drills ahead of time can make all the difference during crucial seconds during an emergency.
Your Disaster Supplies Kit
There are some essential items that should be in every home’s disaster supplies kit. They include:
- Flashlights. Store several (along with extra batteries) in your kit and throughout the home.
- Food and water. Having canned goods and other non-perishable food items will help feed your family. Don’t forget to include a can opener. You’ll need 3 gallons of water for every person in the home to make it through until rescue crews arrive.
- First aid kit. Check supplies and restock as necessary.
- An ABC type fire extinguisher. This should be in an easily accessible location.
- Dust masks and goggles can help ensure you’re able to see and aren’t breathing in large amounts of debris as you recover and clean up from an earthquake.
- A battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio with the Public Alert feature will let you know of tsunamis and other hazards following an earthquake, and can provide essential information from rescue crews during an emergency.
- Cash. You may need it to purchase supplies and food once the earthquake is over, as electronic and banking systems may be knocked out for a time afterwards.
Store your supplies in a large plastic container for ease of portability and access. You want to ensure you have enough supplies to survive for at least three days following an earthquake. Having smaller, backpack-sized emergency kits ready in your car, at work, or by the door can be helpful in the event you must leave your home quickly.
In each supply kit, include a copy of emergency phone numbers as well as your written emergency plan. If an emergency happens, you may not be thinking clearly and having a written plan to remind you where you are supposed to meet and who you should contact can be helpful. You can find a checklist and free downloads on the government’s website.
Caring for People, Pets and Property in an Emergency
Children, the elderly, and disabled persons will all have their own special needs in the event of an emergency. By ensuring you have a plan in place ahead of time, you can avoid any additional stress in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake.
For pets, ensure you have a supply of food and water, as well as collar, leash, and other restraints by the door and in your emergency supply kit. Keep copies of any important vet records in your kit as well. Microchipping your pet can help them find their way home should they escape during an emergency.
It’s a good idea to document any important property for insurance purposes ahead of time. You may also want to keep “go bags” of important items you wouldn’t want to leave behind in an evacuation, such as photographs or jewelry.
Be Aware of Flood Zones
Find out if you live near a flood zone or dam, and if so, create an evacuation plan. During major earthquakes and other natural disasters, dams can fail and cause flooding, so it’s important to be prepared to get to higher ground if necessary.
Preparing Your Home for an Earthquake
While there’s nothing you can do to prevent an earthquake from happening, you can prepare your home ahead of time in order to minimize damage and help protect you and your family. By assessing the foundation and structure of your home, you can identify any potential weaknesses and repair or reinforce them ahead of a disaster. If you rent, speak with your landlord about what protections are in place in the event of an earthquake, and if they are willing to invest in upgrades. Some other things you can do to prepare your home for an earthquake include:
- Moving large and heavy items to lower shelves.
- Securing furniture, appliances, and televisions to prevent tipping.
- Storing breakable items in latched cupboards.
- Storing chemicals or flammable items in low, latched cupboards.
- Securing small items with museum putty.
- Keeping trees trimmed.
- Ensuring gas and electrical connections are safe and secure.
- Installing an automatic gas shut-off valve triggered by strong vibrations.
- Repairing any cracks in your ceiling or foundation.
- Ensuring any free-standing wood stoves or fireplace inserts are secured.
- Keeping exit routes clear.
It’s also worth speaking with your insurance company to find out if they offer earthquake insurance. If not, call your state insurance commissioner to request assistance.
What to Do During an Earthquake
While it may be difficult in the moment, one of the most important things to do if you suspect an earthquake is happening is to remain calm.
If you are inside when an earthquake occurs, take cover using the “drop, cover, and hold on” technique. If you’re outdoors when an earthquake begins, stay outside. Do not try to go inside. The additional tips below can help protect yourself during an earthquake.
Staying Safe Indoors:
- Drop, cover, and hold on until the shaking stops. Remain inside until it is safe to move.
- Stay clear of windows or light fixtures.
- Avoid large or falling objects. If you are in bed when an earthquake begins, stay in the bed and cover your head, as it can be difficult to see hazards at night.
- Those in wheelchairs or other mobility devices should lock their wheels, bend over, and remain seated until the shaking stops. Protect the head and neck with arms, a pillow, a book, or whatever is available.
- If you’re in a high rise building when an earthquake hits, avoid the elevators and don’t be surprised if the sprinkler system or fire alarm activates.
Staying Safe Outdoors:
- Find a spot away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires, and then drop, cover, and hold on until the shaking stops.
- If you’re in your vehicle, stop as quickly as possible and engage the emergency brake. Avoid hazards such as electrical lines, bridges, or utility poles. Once the shaking has stopped and it is safe to move again, be mindful that roads or bridges may have been damaged because of the quake, and approach with caution.
Staying Safe in Stadiums, Theaters, and Large Venues:
- If you’re in a larger venue, it’s best to remain in your seat until the earthquake is over. Cover your head and neck, and hold on to the seat. Once the quake is over, proceed calmly towards the exit, being mindful of damaged or falling items.
Mistakes to Avoid
Rescuers and experts agree, there are a few things you should avoid doing during an earthquake in order to protect yourself and prevent injury. They include:
- DO NOT run outside or to other rooms during shaking. A quake can cause objects to fly through the air and injure you, or you could trip under the unsteady ground.
- DO NOT stand in a doorway. A doorway is no stronger than any other part of your home and offers no additional protection during an earthquake — especially in modern homes. You are safer holding on under a table.
- DO NOT get in the “triangle of life.” Some people have been told getting next to a table rather than under it is an alternate way to stay safe during an earthquake, but this is not true and can actually be life threatening. You are still safer taking cover below a table, desk, or other shelter.
What to Do After an Earthquake
Following an earthquake, you may experience tremors known as aftershocks. These can persist for quite some time and can be quite strong. There may even be another earthquake. Be mindful that the ground could begin moving again at any point. Earthquakes also act as triggers for landslides and tsunamis, so be aware if you are near areas where this could be a problem. Chances are buildings and roads will be damaged after an earthquake, so take your time and be careful when moving about.
Other steps to ensure your safety following an earthquake include:
- Look about before moving.
- If trapped, try not to move or stir up dust.
- Call or text for help if you have a cell phone with you.
- Use a whistle, or tap a pipe so rescuers can locate you.
- Once you’re in a safe place, monitor local news reports via battery operated radio, TV, social media, or cell phone text alerts for emergency information and instructions.
- Check for, and treat any injuries. Assist with rescues if trained and able.
- Move inland to higher ground if you are near the coast.
- Be mindful that items in cupboards and drawers may have shifted during the earthquake, and open carefully.
- Check for electrical, gas, or water damage. Evacuate if necessary, shut off if possible, or repair if you’re able.
- When cleaning up, wear protective gear and do not move heavy debris by yourself.
- Remain ready to “drop, cover, and hold on” in the likely event of aftershocks.
- You can text SHELTER along with your zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find an emergency shelter in your area.
Getting Involved in Your Community
There are plenty of ways to get involved in earthquake readiness activities within your community. The Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills take place a few times each year, and offer an organized opportunity to practice earthquake safety drills in order to be prepared should a real emergency arise.
Other opportunities to get involved in your community include volunteering through your local American Red Cross and FEMA’s Citizen Corps and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs. Becoming certified in first aid can prove a valuable asset, especially in a an emergency situation such as an earthquake.