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How to Survive an Earthquake: The Art & Science of Disaster Preparedness and Prepping

Updated on January 6, 2013

Why Should I Prepare for an Earthquake?

Typically, the first state that comes to mind for most people when they hear the word earthquake is California. In fact, a great many people who call a state other than California home often respond sarcastically when they hear others talking about preparing to survive an earthquake. However, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans live in areas that lie in potential quake zones.

One should thoughtfully consider the fact that there are, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, actually 45 states and territories that are at a moderate to high risk for experiencing an earthquake, including those states (Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky) that lie along the New Madrid fault line - a seismic zone in which geologists and seismologists have predicted a 97 percent chance of a major earthquake (i.e., with a magnitude greater than 7.0) between now and the year 2035.

In fact, from 1974 to 2008, there were only eight states that did not experience an earthquake with a magnitude registering over 3.5 - Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Furthermore, much to the chagrin of those living in denial or blissful ignorance, there were 40 quakes of at least magnitude 3.5 along the New Madrid fault line during the same period. In fact, if these had all occurred in one state, the state would have ranked number 11 for earthquake activity in the US.

The 2011 East Coast earthquake clearly illustrated that fact that it is impossible to predict when or where the inevitable quakes will strike and should have served as a wake-up call. Earthquakes can and do happen with some regularity across America - the potential risk is very real.

Learning how to survive one - and, more importantly, applying that knowledge - is critical to surviving. The truth is the only effective way to protect you and your family is to incorporate earthquake preparation, planning and practice - the sooner the better.

With that in mind, let's explore the five simple steps that can help you survive an earthquake.

Step #1 to Earthquake Survival: Secure Your Home

The first step to surviving an earthquake is to secure your home. This means eliminating, or at least reducing, the existing hazards before one strikes. You should conduct a monthly walk-through of your home, creating a list of hazards and structural flaws you discover.

Hazards include superficial problems that can be easily corrected, such as heavy items stored on high shelves, unsecured doors to upper cabinets that contain dangerous items (e.g., glasses and dishware), and tall furniture that can tip over during an earthquake. Structural flaws include more serious problems, such as cracking or unstable foundations, weak walls (e.g., deteriorating masonry), and vulnerable pipes.

Finally, you should assess the environment surrounding your home. Pay close attention to large trees that can topple onto your home or power lines.

Step #2 to Earthquake Survival: Create a Plan

Having completed your risk assessment, it's time to begin creating an earthquake response plan (ERP). At a minimum, your plan should address the following items:

  1. 1) Correct and repair the hazards and structural flaws you identified in your home (see step #1).
  2. 2) Identify safe zones where you can seek cover in the event of an earthquake. The best locations are under large sturdy furniture. You should also identify unsafe zones to be avoided, including near exterior walls, windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, or large appliances.
  3. 3) Identify any special needs of your household members and neighbors.
  4. 4) Identify essential training that may prove beneficial following the quake, such as Red Cross first aid and CPR training.
  5. 5) Identify the location of utility shutoffs (e.g., gas, water and electric). You should also insure that you have the proper and necessary tools to shut them off in the event it becomes necessary to do so.
  6. 6) Install fire extinguishers throughout your home and insure that everyone in your household both knows how to use them correctly and is comfortable operating them.
  7. 7) Select a safe rally point outside your home. Family members are often away from home when earthquakes strike and you will need to have a prearranged location to meet. Communications are difficult following any disaster - have a plan to reunite your family ahead of time.
  8. 8) Create a family communication plan, including emergency contact numbers. Following a disaster, it is often easier to complete a long-distance call than a local call so include an out-of-state contact person. Furthermore, your plan should utilize a single command and control node. Rather than everyone randomly calling each other have everyone report to one person.
  9. 9) Identify a relocation (bug-out) site in the event you will be unable to live in your home following quake. This should include a solid transportation plan, including vehicle, route and resource (e.g., fuel) decisions.
  10. 10) Assemble copies of essential documents in a central location.
  11. 11) Conduct earthquake drills. All the planning in the world won't help you if you don't practice it - it must become second nature. You should practice both your immediate reaction (see next step) and your response following the earthquake, including exiting your home quickly and safely, recovering your supply kits, carrying out your rally and communication plans, and completing your bug-out plan. Not only will this help improve your efficiency in carrying out the different steps of your plan but it will help identify flaws - flaws you want to correct before an earthquake... not during and after.

Step #3 to Earthquake Survival: Create Disaster Kits

You will want to create personal supply kits (aka bug-out bags) for each member of your household, as well as larger supply kits for your home and vehicles. This is critical to your survival as authorities instruct (and recent disaster events demonstrate) that you should assume that you will be entirely on your own for at least 72 hours - with little or no assistance from others.

Remember that electrical, water, transportation, and other vital systems can be disrupted for several days or much longer in some places after a large earthquake. Furthermore, emergency response agencies and hospitals could be overwhelmed and unable to provide you with immediate assistance. Providing first aid and having supplies will both save lives and make life in the aftermath more comfortable.

Your personal supply kits should, at a minimum, contain the following items. However, you don't want to overdo it. Personal supply kits (or bug-out bags) are intended to be light and easy to transport on foot.

  • Important documents and items (e.g., medications, prescriptions, medical cards, contact information, personal IDs)

  • A small, basic, personal first aid kit & handbook

  • Dust masks

  • Bottled water

  • High-calorie emergency food (enough to sustain one person for 72 hours)

  • Whistle (to alert rescuers)

  • Emergency cash (ATMs will be inoperable when power goes out)

  • Road and/or topographical maps

  • Copy of communications list

  • Flashlight w/ extra batteries and light sticks

  • Car charger for cell phone (vehicles may be the only source of power)

  • Emergency blanket

  • Warm gear (e.g., hoodie, jacket, gloves, etc.) as needed for your climate

  • Extra pair of socks

Your larger household and vehicle supply kits should, at a minimum, contain all the items above and the following additional items. Your supply kits should meet the needs of your entire household for a minimum of 72 hours; however, ideally you should have a two-week supply.

  • Large first aid kit with handbook. The CDC has great list of essential items you should have in your medical kit.

  • Water. You should have a minimum of one gallon per person, per day. This means a minimum of 12 gallons for a family of four (72 hours). This does not include water for food preparation or personal hygiene. Remember that carbonated beverages do not meet drinking water requirements. Caffeinated drinks dehydrate the body, which increases the need for drinking water.

  • Basic tools - including those needed to shut off your utilities.

  • Work gloves and eye protection

  • Heavy duty plastic bags and duct tape

  • Emergency radio (battery or crank)

  • Extra batteries and light sticks

  • Canned or packaged emergency foods

  • Charcoal or gas grill for cooking (e.g., small Coleman grill). This is critical not only for cooking but for boiling water for drinking. Include water-proof matches.

  • Cooking utensils (including manual can opener)

  • Extra clothing

  • Blankets or sleeping bags

  • Tent

Recommended Wise Foods Prepper Kits

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Step #4 to Earthquake Survival: Drop, Cover and Hold On

If you are going to survive an earthquake, then you obviously have to protect yourself during the event itself.

If you are inside a building when the quake strikes, then you should drop to floor and move as quickly as possible to your nearest predetermined safe zone (see step #2). The most dangerous place to be during an earthquake is near windows and outer walls. Thus, do NOT attempt to exit or enter a building during a quake. Again, if you are inside - stay inside. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave. Remember: drop, cover and hold on - practice it (your life may depend on it).

If you are outside - remain outside. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. I cannot stress this enough. If you are inside, find cover and stay put during the quake. If you are outside, do not attempt to seek shelter by entering a structure. Rather, move away from structures and hazards (e.g., trees and power lines) and then drop, cover and hold on.

If you are in a car, pull over to the side of the road, stop, and remain inside your vehicle until shaking stops. If a power line falls on your car, do not attempt to exit until trained first responders arrive and instruct you to do so. Finally, avoid stopping on or under overpasses or bridges, or near other hazards.

Demonstration of "Drop, Cover and Hold On" - Los Angeles County Firefighters

Step #5 to Earthquake Survival: Assess, Communicate & Implement Your Plan

Once the initial shaking comes to a complete stop, you should take the following actions:

  1. Move to safety. If you are inside a building, exit as soon as the shaking stops and it is safe to do so. If able to do safely, assist others in exiting as well. Remember to grab your household supply kit and personal bug-out bag. If you are outside, do not attempt to enter any building until it has been declared safe by authorities. This is why (1) you keep supply kits in your vehicles and (2) should store your household supply kit in a location where it can easily be grabbed when exiting your home and/or accessed from outside with minimal entry (such as in a closet by an exterior door, in your garage or in a shed).
  2. Conduct an initial medical survey of all family members, neighbors and/or co-workers. Attend to any injuries that require immediate attention. Remember your ABCs - airway, breathing, and circulation.
  3. Assess your environment. Identify any hazards such as damaged gas, water, sewage and electrical lines. Fires are the most common hazard following an earthquake and you should look for and extinguish small fires -- if you can safely do so.
  4. Expect aftershocks. Once you have completed your initial medical and environmental assessments, you should immediately move to a secure temporary staging area. If you live in a coastal area, be aware of potential tsunami threats and evacuation routes.
  5. Initiate your family communication and rally plans. Use your radio to monitor news and public safety messages.
  6. If you need to find a public shelter, you can text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest on in your area (example: shelter 12345).
  7. Think ahead and anticipate threats and needs.

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Images featured on this Lens are either (1) used under Creative Commons or Fair Use rules, (2) are the property of the US government and/or in the public domain, or (3) are my own images. Every attempt has been made to provide accurate credits and link to original sources where possible. Images related to advertisements are either the property of the advertiser and used with their permission or created by myself.

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