Keeping Your Family Safe During an Earthquake

An average of 10,000 people die each year as a result of earthquakes. Estimates indicate that between 800,000 to more than one million earthquakes occur each year, but many are so small in magnitude that they go unnoticed. Earthquakes of magnitude greater than 8.0 occur, on average, every eight to 10 years—and these stronger earthquakes are capable of producing mass destruction.

Image via serc.carlton.edu

Massive earthquakes in recent years have drawn attention to the need to be prepared for this type of natural disaster. The 2010 quake in the Haiti region, for instance, claimed the lives of more than 315,000 people. Another 300,000 were injured and 1.3 million people displaced from their homes.

It’s not just the earthquake itself that causes devastating damage. In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean created a tsunami that struck the coast of Indonesia, leading to more than 230,000 deaths spanning 14 countries along the coast of the Indian Ocean. The hardest-hit areas were Indonesia, Thailand, Sri-Lanka and India. This earthquake was the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph, at a magnitude of 9.1 to 9.3 Mw. Landslides are another side effect of earthquakes capable of mass destruction.

Image via earthquake.usgs.gov

In the United States, earthquakes are most likely to occur in Alaska and California. However, all fifty states and five U.S. territories are susceptible to earthquakes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Because earthquakes may strike at anytime, anywhere, there are a few general safety tips to follow before and during an earthquake:

  • Have an earthquake readiness plan.

    • Store a type-ABC fire extinguisher in an easily accessible location.

    • Keep several flashlights in easily accessible places around the house.

    • Keep a wrench or turn-off tool in waterproof wrap near the gas meter.

    • Know the location of your main electrical switch, fuse box, or circuit breaker.

    • Have your emergency plan accessible and discuss with all family members.

    • Know whether you live, work, or play in a tsunami hazard zone.

    • Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with the Public Alert feature to notify you of tsunamis and other hazards.

    • Keep flashlight, slippers, and gloves next to beds.

    • Keep your gas tank at least half full.

  • Learn how to make your home sturdier.  You may want to contract a contractor to be sure your home is bolted to its foundation.  You should also bolt bookcases and larger pieces of furniture, such as hutches, to wall studs.  Another step to consider is securing your water heater so that it cannot topple over and possibly break gas or water lines in your home.

  • Determine safe spaces in each room of your home, away from windows, to go to in case of an earthquake.  Choose spots where it is unlikely something will fall on you.

  • Prepare a disaster kit.  Stock up on canned food, a first-aid kit, 3 gallons of water per person, dust masks and goggles, and a battery-operated radio and flashlights.

    • Keep an emergency backpack with copies of important documents near the door to grab and go.

    • Store the emergency food and water supplies in a dry, accessible area.  Remember to also include extra cash, extra batteries, medication, and other necessary supplies.

  • Learn how to turn off your gas and water mains.

Image via edu4hazards.org

 If Shaking Begins:

  • Drop down and take cover under a desk or table.  Be prepared to hold on until the shaking stops.

  • Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to exit.

  • Stay away from bookcases and other furniture that can fall on you.

  • Stay away from windows and light fixtures.

  • If you are in bed, stay where you are and cover your head with a pillow to protect yourself from falling objects.

  • If you are outside, drop to the ground in a clear spot away from buildings, trees, and power lines.

  • If you are in a car, slow down and drive to a clear space.  Stay in the car until the shaking stops.

While you never can completely guarantee that your family and home will be absolutely safe during an earthquake, there are ways to prepare before an earthquake occurs.  The earthquake data for 2012 shows that worldwide there were more than 95 damaging earthquakes that resulted in approximately 700 fatalities and 6,000 injuries.

Image via OptimisticYogi.wordpress.com

And, because earthquakes are nearly impossible to predict and therefore most often occur without any warning, people must prepare ahead of time in order to survive.  According to FEMA, earthquake preparation involves learning what to do before, during, and after an earthquake and doing or preparing those things now, before an earthquake occurs.

Before an Earthquake

FEMA advises that you prepare three things before the next earthquake: your home, your family, and your community.

Prepare Your Home

The most important thing you can do to prepare your home is to make it more resistant to earthquake damage by assessing its structure and contents.  Structurally, you should be wary of a home that is not anchored to its foundation, has weak crawl space walls, has unbraced pier-and-post foundations, or has masonry walls or foundations that are not reinforced.  You may fix any weaknesses that you find, or you might want to seek professional help.  If you rent, you should ask your landlord how the home has been strengthened to guard against earthquakes.

As for your home’s contents, you want to secure all objects that could move, break, or fall as a result of an earthquake.  You should examine each room of your home for such objects and secure items like tall, heavy furniture (bookcases, dressers, etc.), electronics, appliances (including water heaters), and anything hanging from walls or ceilings.  Remember, light fixtures may fall easily during an earthquake.  You then should secure all of these items with flexible fasteners or with closed hooks or relocate them away from beds to lower shelves or cabinets with latched doors.

Image via Stanford.edu

 

 Ready.gov and Earthquake Country, a service of the Southern California Earthquake Center, offer more specific checklists for homeowners in the event of an earthquake.  Again, these are things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your property if an earthquake should hit.

  • Build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.

  • Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves.

  • Store breakable items such as bottled foods, glass, and china in low, closed cabinets with latches.

  • Securely fasten heavy items such as picture and mirrors and away from beds and seating areas

  • Repair defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections, or get the appropriate professionals to help

  • Install flexible pipe fittings to avoid gas and water leaks

  • Secure your water heater, refrigerator, furnace, and gas appliances by strapping them to wall studs or bolt them to the floor.  You may want to have an automatic gas shut-off valve installed that is triggered by strong vibrations, if recommended by your gas company.

  • Repair deep cracks in ceilings and foundations; get expert advice if you think there are structural defects

  • Be sure the home is firmly anchored to its foundation.

  • Store weed killers, pesticides, and flammable products securely in closed cabinets with latches on the bottom shelves.

  • Locate safe spots in each room under a sturdy table or against an inside wall.  Move to these places during each drill.

  • Periodically hold earthquake drills with your family.  Remember to drop, cover, and hold on.

  • Hang plants in lightweight pots with closed hooks, well secured to a joist or wall stud and far away from windows.

  • Install strong latches on kitchen cabinets.

  • Remove or lock refrigerator wheels.

  • Secure free-standing woodstoves or fireplace inserts.

  • Keep heavy, unstable objects away from doors and exit routes.

  • Secure knickknacks and other small valuables with museum putty.

  • Trim hazardous tree limbs.

  • Reinforce brick chimneys.

 

Prepare Yourself and Your Family

Be sure that each member of your family knows what to do during an earthquake.  As with any other potential harm to your family, it is crucial that you communicate about earthquakes and earthquake safety.  Additionally, you should have drills with your family to practice what you’ve learned about earthquake safety.  These drills should include the specific steps for Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

Image via pubs.usgs.gov

 

Another way to prepare prior to an earthquake is to keep a current emergency supply kit in your home and to make sure that all family members know its location.  The kit should include one or two portable containers, such as plastic tubs or book bags, holding the supplies your family would need to survive without outside aid for at least three days following the earthquake.

Remember, basic services like electricity, gas, water, sewer, and telephone may be out for days, so your kit should contain items to help you manage those circumstances.  You should also make additional, smaller kits to keep in your car and your place of work.  Your emergency supply kit should also contain the addresses, phone numbers, and evacuation sites for all of the places in which your family members spend time, including schools, workplaces, etc.  It is also recommended that your family members carry a copy of this list, or contact card, in their wallets, purses, briefcases, backpacks, or book bags.

You may also have to care for the people, pets, and property associated with your family during an earthquake.  To be prepared for that moment, you should be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); you may contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross to become certified.

You should also look into where you could shelter your family pets if you should have to evacuate.  Finally, you should make sure that all of your family members know when and how to contact 9-1-1, how to use the fire extinguisher, and how to shut off your home’s utilities.  Some insurance companies offer earthquake insurance, so you may want to consider asking your state insurance commissioner about the availability of earthquake insurance in your area.

Prepare Your Community

Because your community will have to work together after an earthquake hits, you should become involved in your local volunteer programs that work toward your community’s disaster resilience efforts.  There may be opportunities available through the American Red Cross and FEMA’s Citizen Corps and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs.

During an Earthquake

Exterior walls, building facades, and architectural details are often the first parts of a building to collapse.  Because of this danger zone, if an earthquake hits while you are inside, stay inside and if it hits while you are outside, stay outside.  Studies have shown that injuries and deaths caused by earthquakes over the last several decades are most often caused by falling or flying objects, such as TVs, lamps, glass, bookcases, etc. and not by the collapsed building.

Image via DocStoc.com, Public Domain via FEMA, nehrp

The tips for keeping your family safe while the earthquake occurs are better split into the two categories: inside and outside.

If you are indoors when the earthquake hits:

  • If you are just inside, drop, cover, and hold on – Drop to the floor on your hands and knees so the earthquake cannot knock you down, take cover under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on to it firmly.  It may move while the shaking continues; you need to be prepared to move with it.  If you are not near a desk or a table, move against an interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms.  Avoid dropping to a location that is underneath hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances, and kitchen cabinets with heavy objects and/or glass.  The main goal of Drop, Cover, and Hold On is to “protect you from falling and flying debris and other nonstructural hazards, and to increase the chance of your ending up in a Survivable Void Space if the building actually collapses.  The space under a sturdy table or desk is likely to remain even if the building collapses – pictures from around the world show tables and desks standing with rubble all around them, and even holding up floors that have collapsed.

  • If you are in bed – Hold on and stay there.  Protect your head with a pillow.  You must stay where you are because broken glass has injured people trying to get to the doorways.

  • If you are in a wheelchair – Lock the wheels once you are in a safe position.  If you are unable to move quickly, stay where you are and cover your head and neck with your arms.

  • If you are inside a high-rise – Drop, cover, and hold on.  Avoid windows and other potential hazards.  Do not use elevators, and be prepared for sprinkler systems and fire alarms to activate.

Image via whologwhy on Flickr

If you are outdoors when the earthquake hits:

  • If you are driving – Pull over, stop, and set your parking brake.  Avoid overpasses, bridges, and power lines, trees, signs, buildings, vehicles, and other things that may fall on your car.

  • If you are in a stadium or theater – Stay at your seat and protect your head and neck with your arms.  Don’t try to leave until the shaking has stopped.  Then, walk out slowly watching for anything that could fall during aftershocks.

  • If you are below a dam – Know the flood-zone information and have a prepared evacuation plan.  Dams can fail during major earthquakes.

Experts and rescuers also recommend what you and your family should not do during an earthquake.  During an earthquake,

  • Do NOT run outside or to other rooms during the shaking.

  • Do NOT stand in a doorway.

  • Do NOT get in the “triangle of life” (getting next to a table rather than under it).

 

After an Earthquake

One of the most important things to keep in mind about the time after an earthquake is there could be aftershocks.  If these occur, revert to the “During an Earthquake” tips and checklists until they are over.

Image via all-geo.org

 

Ready.gov also recommends the following checklist for people to follow once the shaking stops.

  • Look around to be sure it is safe to move, and then exit the building.

  • Help injured or trapped people.  Remember to help neighbors who may require special assistance, including infants, the elderly, and people with disabilities.  Give first aid as appropriate.  Do not move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of sustaining more injuries.  Call for help.

  • Look for and extinguish small fires.  Fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake.

  • Listen to a battery-operated radio or television for the most recent emergency information.

  • Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in a coastal area.  If a tsunami warning is issued, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on its way.  Stay away from the beach.

  • Use the telephone only for emergency calls.

  • Go to a designated shelter if your home is no longer safe.  You may text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area.

  • Stay away from damaged areas.  Stay away unless your assistance specifically has been requested by police, fire, or relief organizations.  Return home only when the authorities say it is safe.

  • Be careful driving after an earthquake and anticipate light outages.

  • Cautiously open cabinets.  Beware of objects that could fall off shelves.

  • Visit http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/emergency/index.html to find out how to keep food safe during and after an emergency.

  • Put on long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sturdy shoes, and work gloves to protect against broken objects.

  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately.  Leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from chemicals.

  • Inspect the length of your chimney for damage.  Damage that is undetected could lead to a fire.

  • Inspect your utilities.

    • Check for gas leaks.

    • Look for electrical system damage.

    • Check for sewage and water lines damage.

Another possible outcome in the aftermath of an earthquake is being ordered to evacuate a damaged area.  Planning and practicing for evacuation will allow you to better prepare to respond appropriately and efficiently to signs of danger or to directions from authorities. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers the following recommendations for evacuation plans:

  • Take some time to discuss evacuation with your family.  Sketch a floor plan of your home; walk through each room and discuss evacuation details.

  • Plan a second way to exit each room or area.  If special equipment is needed, mark where it is located.

  • Mark where your emergency food, water, first aid kids, and fire extinguishers are located.

  • Mark where the utility switches or valves are located so that they can be turned off, if possible.

  • Indicate the location of your family’s emergency outdoor meeting place.

Image via RedCross.org

Finally, people in all communities can prepare their families and themselves for an earthquake by participating in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills that occur a few times each year. This provides an organized opportunity for families, schools, organizations, and individuals to practice how to protect ourselves and how to become prepared for the next earthquake.