Be Prepared: Household Earthquake Safety Tips and Helpful Home Modifications to Consider
Earthquakes strike without a hint of warning, leaving everyone scrambling for a safe place to be. Day or night, the shaking can start in earnest. Earthquakes are powerful enough to knock items off the walls, tip over large objects, and even cause buildings to collapse. They can devastate entire areas and leave everyone without fresh food, water, and shelter. Their power is unmistakable and worthy of consideration well before the event occurs.
Therefore, everyone should take the time for household earthquake preparedness to ensure they are not caught completely off guard by the next quake. Since there is no telling when the next one will arrive, the time to get prepared is now. Use this guide to learn all there is to know about earthquake preparedness and safety to get started with confidence.
Table of Contents
- The Effects of Earthquakes
- Earthquake Preparedness
- Creating an Earthquake-Ready Home
- Keeping Yourself Safe During an Earthquake
- What Not to Do During an Earthquake
- Safety After an Earthquake
- Earthquake Insurance for Homeowners
The Effects of Earthquakes
Deep underground, enormous tectonic plates constantly move and shift in response to intense pressures. When sudden shifts occur, usually along the fault lines, these plates release waves of energy that can reach the surface.
Sometimes, the waves are too slight to feel, while others cause utter devastation to everything on the surface. Entire cities have even been destroyed by high-magnitude earthquakes. But it is not just the shaking that causes all the problems.
Earthquakes can also cause a number of disastrous issues, such as:
Occurring in areas with loose soil particles, liquefaction causes the surface soil to lose its strength and flow like liquid. Waves of mud result, causing everything in the affected area to sink into the ground.
As the ground shakes and moves, landslides can occur, especially along slopes. The sliding land can take buildings and other structures with it. Falling debris has the potential to cause additional damage and serious injuries.
All along the fault lines, the land is at risk of surface ruptures. This occurs as the plates slip past each other, causing the surfaces on either side to end up vertically or horizontally displaced.
When earthquakes occur in large bodies of water, they can trigger a powerful wave as the water is displaced. If this wave reaches the shore, it can cause an immense loss of life and absolutely devastate the entire area.
Strong earthquakes have the potential to decimate the land, leaving people without food, water, and other necessary supplies. An inability to find medical care and other important resources is another real possibility during an earthquake.
With so many potential effects of earthquakes, it just makes sense to get fully prepared. It is possible for households to reduce the risk of injuries during an earthquake by knowing just what to do — and getting prepared beforehand. That way, when the ground unexpectedly starts shaking, there is already a plan and resources in place as a safety net.
Earthquake preparedness starts with an understanding of what to do the moment the shaking starts. The entire household needs to know the safest places to ride out the earthquake and how to proceed afterward.
Everyone should have a place to meet up and know how to communicate with their family, friends, and neighbors as well. Creating a family emergency plan for earthquakes and other disasters can go a long way in helping everyone know and follow these steps.
The emergency plan should include:
- Drop, cover, and hold-on techniques
- Where to find the household’s emergency food, water, and other supplies
- Instructions for turning off all utilities at the valves
- Designated meeting points
- Steps to contact each person in the household
- How to communicate with out-of-state contacts
After creating an emergency plan, households need to put their focus on preparing their homes as well. Bolting heavy furniture to the wall, latching cabinets and drawers, and installing automatic gas shutoff switches, for example, can all help reduce the damage caused by earthquakes. It is also important to anchor the water heater in place with seismic straps to prevent flooding and other damage.
Disaster Supplies Kit
With an emergency plan in place, households can turn their attention to building up a disaster supplies kit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends having at least three days of supplies on hand, though having a week’s worth could not hurt.
After a high-magnitude earthquake, damage to the roads and buildings can keep people from getting the water, food, and other supplies they need for an extended period of time. With a well-equipped disaster supply kit, it is possible to ensure the household can stay self-sufficient until help arrives.
While creating this kit, make sure to include:
Keep a large stockpile of non-perishable food somewhere safe and accessible to all members of the household. Consider including:
- Canned meat, beans, and vegetables
- Protein bars
- Dried fruit
- Trail mix
- Peanut butter
- Powdered milk
- Pepperoni sticks
Remember to keep the food in a cool, dark place. Also, rotate out all the items every six months to keep them fresh.
Everyone in the household needs at least one gallon of water per day, as do all pets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests having at least two weeks of water stored for each person.
The easiest way to do that is with commercially bottled water in 5-gallon containers, though that can take up a lot of room. Self-filled 50-gallon containers can work, too, as long as they are made from food-grade materials and come with a tight-fitting lid. If filling up the containers using well water, add two drops of chlorine bleach for each gallon of water.
First Aid Supplies
First aid supplies are a must, as they allow for the treatment of everything from cuts and scrapes to stings and burns. To create this kit, gather up:
- Gauze pads
- First aid tape
- Adhesive bandages
- Compression bandages
- Triple antibiotic ointment
- Antiseptic wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Burn cream
- Emergency blankets
- Disposable thermometers
In addition to these items, each person should have at least a week’s supply of all their prescribed medications. Each household should have aspirin, ibuprofen, and other over-the-counter medications in their kit as well.
While building an emergency supply kit, include all the necessary items needed by pets in the household as well. Also, make sure to have a hand-crank radio, flashlight, and plenty of batteries. Create mini versions of these food, water, and first aid kits for all the cars in the household in case everyone needs to evacuate.
Disaster Preparedness in the Community
Disaster preparedness needs to extend far outside each household to the community at large as well. This way, everyone can work together to stay safe, no matter where they are when an earthquake hits. Communities all around the world must take the steps to stay prepared for an earthquake—and nonprofit organizations are usually at the forefront of this effort.
From hospitals to food banks, all the local community service organizations tend to work together to ensure the community is safe during all types of disasters. They provide everyone with the support they need to stay safe and well until things normalize. These organizations assist those who could not prepare or need additional help, including assistance evacuating the area, when possible.
These organizations also go beyond response and recovery by offering earthquake preparedness education to the community. Through brochures, websites, and workshops, they educate local residents on the importance of preparing for an earthquake and how to build an emergency kit. They may even help community members start their emergency kits by donating supplies at events throughout the year. Thankfully, these organizations are often easy to find. If you live in a Santa Monica home, for example, you could search for the Santa Monica Office of Emergency Management to start.
Through their efforts, these organizations help communities do all they can to prepare for earthquakes and respond properly when disaster strikes. Community members can give back and help their neighbors by donating both their time and money to these organizations.
Caring for People, Pets and Property in an Emergency
Community members can also prepare to give back by completing first aid and CPR training. Along with local nonprofit organizations, community colleges and private companies frequently offer these courses for a small fee. The Red Cross also offers a number of online training courses that teach participants how to complete basic first aid and CPR on adults, children, and infants.
The first aid courses help students master how to:
- Assess injuries
- Stop bleeding
- Bandage wounds
- Prevent infection
- Treat stings and bites
- Wrap sprains
- Respond to heat stroke
Through CPR training, students will learn the proper way to clear the airway and perform chest compressions on people of all ages. Some training courses also help students learn how to perform CPR on dogs, cats, and other pets.
What people do not learn in CPR and first aid training is when and how to evacuate in an emergency situation. Knowing what to do ahead of time is vital to making it through an earthquake unscathed. Everyone should make a list of potentially safe places to evacuate, such as to an out-of-state relative’s house or hotels.
If pets are in the household, it is important to verify they will be welcome ahead of time. Public shelters, like those ran by the Red Cross, do not allow pets, making it difficult to find a safe place for them to stay. If left without any other options, pet owners can reach out to the shelter staff to see if any nonprofits are helping with pets. Finding these shelters is as easy as using the FEMA app, going on the Red Cross website, or listening to a local radio station.
Listening to the radio will also provide information on recommended evacuation routes. It is incredibly important that everyone follow these routes due to the risk of damaged or blocked roadways.
As long as there is enough time, it is important to lock up everything and check with neighbors to see if they need help evacuating. Also, turn off the electricity, gas, and water in addition to unplugging all electronics.
After putting all necessary supplies in the vehicle, families should head out along the recommended routes to their planned shelter. The household’s out-of-state contact should be notified at some point in this process to ensure everyone knows what is going on.
Avoiding Flood Zones and Other Dangerous Areas
Following the recommended evacuation routes helps everyone avoid ending up in flood zones and other dangerous areas. Flood waters are incredibly risky to navigate, so they should be avoided at all costs. Even shallow water can move swiftly, sweeping vehicles away or causing them to stall.
The water itself may contain hazardous debris and contaminants that could cause injury and illness. So, under no circumstance should anyone directly come into contact with floodwater. If accidental contact occurs, the individual should wash up with soap and water, hand sanitizer, or alcohol wipes to remove the contaminants.
After an earthquake, there is a high risk of landslides, sinkholes, and ruptured land. Everyone needs to navigate carefully by car and on foot, taking the time to look far ahead and scan the landscape for changes. If anything looks suspect, it is important to avoid taking chances and turn around to take another route. Even if it takes longer, turning around is likely a much safer choice.
Creating an Earthquake-Ready Home
In earthquake-prone areas, retrofitting is a popular choice for business owners and homeowners alike. The retrofitting process creates an earthquake-ready home with ample structural support and plenty of safety features. Powerful earthquakes can cause homes to slide right off their foundations, so this seems like a wise choice for many. It is an especially good choice for those living in homes made in the early 1900s.
Homeowners usually bring in professionals to complete the necessary seismic retrofitting tasks, especially when it comes to reinforcing the foundation. These professionals may add braces to the foundation or strengthen the attachment points between it and the house. They may also improve the bracing on brick and concrete walls, improving their strength all around. When purchasing a home in West Los Angeles or elsewhere, make sure to ask pertinant questions about this to your inspector. Chimneys are often forgotten, but it is very important to have them looked at and reinforced as well.
In preparing their home for an earthquake, there are many things homeowners can do themselves, such as:
Anchor Down the Furniture
From bookcases to TV stands, all large furniture pieces need anchoring to stay put during an earthquake. Otherwise, the items could topple over, potentially causing damage and injury. Both easy and inexpensive, securing furniture only requires brackets and hardware. Using household tools, homeowners can bolt the brackets to the back of each furniture piece, then secure it to the wall.
Mount Large Electronics
As seismic waves move across the surface, large electronics may have a hard time staying upright. Only by securely mounting the electronics can everyone protect their equipment and the people who might be stuck nearby during a quake.
To accomplish this task, use high-strength hardware to mount computer monitors and TVs on a metal arm or directly to the desktop. Alternatively, install flexible nylon straps that secure directly to the tabletop and back of the TV or monitor. Grip fasteners and security straps are also ways to keep large electronics secure through minor-to-severe earthquakes.
Secure the Water Heater
To prevent serious injuries, water damage, and more, homeowners have to go one step further in securing their water heaters. To keep this top-heavy piece of equipment from toppling over in an earthquake, it is necessary to use specially designed seismic straps. These straps are a much heavier gauge metal than the plumbers’ tape used prior to this change.
Since plumbing tape was used through the mid-90s, many homes need this upgrade. Hardware stores sell the seismic straps in a kit with all the necessary parts included, making it easy for homeowners to complete this task themselves.
Latch Shut the Cabinets and Drawers
Even without mischievous babies and pets in the house, homeowners can benefit from latching shut all their cabinets and drawers. Safety latches make it so all the dishes, silverware, and other items in your cabinets and drawers stay securely inside during an earthquake. Otherwise, everything could spill out and break, creating a hazardous environment for everyone in the household. Requiring only a couple screws apiece, the latches only take a few minutes to install using hand tools.
Cover All Glass with Safety Film
The risk of injuries from broken glass is high during and after an earthquake. The windows, sliding glass doors, and other glass throughout the home could shatter, leaving sharp fragments everywhere. Window safety film can decrease the risk of cuts and other injuries by preventing the glass from breaking into sharp shards. If the glass does break, it will stay relatively intact, keeping dangerous glass shards from landing on the ground and other nearby surfaces.
Install Automatic Shutoff Valves
Everyone should know where their manual gas, electricity, and water shutoff valves are located at their residence. But if an earthquake occurs while no one is home, then dire consequences could occur. Therefore, it is a smart choice for homeowners to install automatic shutoff valves for all their utility lines. These valves will halt the flow of water, gas, and electricity upon detecting an abnormality in the system, such as a leak, without any assistance at all.
By completing these steps, homeowners can mitigate the damage that can occur during an earthquake. To go one step further, talk with contractors and other professionals about all the different earthquake retrofitting services available today.
Keeping Yourself Safe During an Earthquake
When the ground starts shaking, the number one thing that should be on anyone’s mind is finding somewhere safe to ride it out. And it is not necessary to go far. In fact, current instructions say to drop, cover, and hold on to decrease the risk of injury during an earthquake.
Drop means to immediately duck down onto hands and knees as soon as the earthquake starts. Then, crawl to either a desk or table, if one is nearby, and hide underneath until the shaking stops. Upon making it to a safe spot, all that is left to do is hold on. The hold ensures each person stays under cover and away from dangerous household furniture and items, including:
- Full shelves and bookcases
- Large wall hangings
- Windows and glass doors
- Cabinets and drawers without latches
- Wall-mounted TVs
Although drop, cover, and hold does not sound like much, it is the most effective way to stay safe during an earthquake.
Where is the Safest Place to Be During an Earthquake?
In their distrust of the building’s integrity, many people try to run outside during an earthquake. Unfortunately, this is often a dangerous mistake, as inside is actually the safest place to remain. As the seismic waves hit the surface, they cause the ground to roll and shake. This makes walking and running nearly impossible without falling. Furthermore, when heading outdoors during an earthquake, there is a high risk of falling debris. So, staying inside is everyone’s best bet at avoiding injuries.
Inside a Home or Building
If someone finds themselves indoors during an earthquake, they should perform the drop, cover, and hold technique immediately upon noticing the shaking. As the shaking increases in intensity, it will be nearly impossible to make it very far.
Instead, look around the immediate vicinity for sturdy furniture that will provide great cover, such as desks, beds, and tables. Then, drop under the one that looks the strongest. Otherwise, go near an interior wall that does not have any windows and crouch down.
Get as much cover as possible, focusing on protecting the head, neck, and torso area. Then, hold tight until the earthquake stops. Aftershocks will occur soon after the initial earthquake, so remain aware of the risk and prepare to drop, cover, and hold if any are too strong.
Although staying inside is the best way to stay safe during an earthquake, it is not an option for those who are already outside. Never try to go back inside, as there is a high risk of damage to the outside of the building and falling debris as a result.
So, while remaining outdoors, everyone should try to get into a clear area and drop, cover, and hold. Do not remain around the outside of buildings, near trees, or under powerlines.
When outdoors in a crowded public area, everyone needs to do their best to remain calm and move slowly to reduce the risk of trampling. Many people panic when they do not know what to do, so offer instruction and model the right behavior to help calm the chaos.
If a lot of dust kicks up due to debris falling, breath through the fabric of your clothing until you can get to fresh air. Anyone trapped under fallen debris should continually tap three times in a row on a wall or a pipe to alert rescuers to their location. Never yell for help, light a match to see, or go to sleep while trapped and waiting for rescue.
In a Car
When an earthquake hits while driving a car, find somewhere safe to pull over and do so carefully. Do not pick anywhere near:
Upon finding a safe space, put the car in park and engage the emergency brake. Remain in the vehicle with a seatbelt on throughout the entire event and afterward.
Once the shaking stops, it may be safe to continue driving, but stay vigilant in watching for new hazards caused by the quake. Earthquakes can completely destroy bridges, for example, leaving everyone without a safe route forward. Never drive on visibly damaged roadways as they can collapse under the weight of passing vehicles.
By taking the right steps, people everywhere can improve their chances of staying safe during an earthquake — no matter where they are when it hits.
What Not to Do During an Earthquake
Through the decades, earthquake preparedness education has changed as people tried to pinpoint just what to do to stay safe during and after the shaking starts. Much of the old advice still circulates, however, confusing people on how to respond. Here are just a couple of the outdated methods better left behind.
Don't Crouch in a Doorway
Doorways do not offer the additional structural rigidity and protection they were perceived to offer in the past. Pictures of homes decimated with only a doorway standing are to blame for this misconception. Through further investigation, it was revealed that doorways do not offer any additional strength beyond what can be found along interior walls. Furthermore, the door itself could slam shut, causing serious injury. Finding cover under a table or desk offers much more protection than a doorway, especially from falling objects.
Skip the Triangle of Life
A strange chain email started circulating years back, touting the safety offered by the triangle of life. This incorrect advice claimed that crouching next to large furniture offers more protection than finding appropriate cover.
Unfortunately, the only time this method offers additional protection is during a full pancake collapse of the building, which is quite rare. Instead, it prevents individuals from finding cover that will protect from heavy items. So, drop, cover, and hold on instead, as the triangle of life offers very little in the form of real protection from harm.
In addition to skipping these unsafe methods, remember to stay far from glass, powerlines, and heavy objects. All these items can break or fall during the initial earthquake and its aftershocks, so steer clear to stay safe.
Safety After an Earthquake
Once the shaking from the initial earthquake finally stops, it is still important to be cautious and alert to the potential dangers. Aftershocks will soon follow, causing the Earth to tremble once again. Although these aftershocks are a lesser magnitude than the initial quake, they still have the potential to cause items to fall and glass to break.
While bracing for aftershocks, get into a safe space with your radio and turn to a local station. They will provide information about local infrastructure damage, including:
- Blocked roadways
- Downed bridges
- Safety of the local drinking water
- Sewer line damage
- Hazardous material spills
If reports indicate there is local sewer line damage or unsafe drinking water conditions, follow their alternate instructions exactly. For sewer line issues, do not flush any toilets or put liquids down the drain until instructed otherwise.
Handle other issues as follows:
If the drinking water is contaminated, do not use it for consumption or washing up. Follow the instructions for treating the water before use or switch to using the stored bottled water on the premises.
If the water is uncontaminated after the earthquake, everyone in the household should aim to fill the bathtubs and other clean vessels with water. This ensures the household has enough water for drinking and washing in case the supply gets cut off or contaminated during the subsequent aftershocks.
Households without any clean water to drink can source a small supply from their hot water heater. Simply turn on the valve at the bottom of the tank and collect the water with a clean basin. Before consuming, run the water through a filter and bring it to a boil for at least one full minute to ensure there are no unsafe contaminants.
Scan the area for immediate hazards with a focus on identifying any structural damage on your property or neighboring properties. If any serious damage is apparent, evacuate the property immediately, taking the emergency supplies, if at all possible.
If no immediate hazards exist, it is time to look at the rest of the property. First, put on thick, protective clothing and rubber-soled boots. Also, wear gloves and eye protection.
Then, look for any signs of damage that could pose a risk to everyone in the household, such as:
- Crumbling chimneys or other brickwork
- Collapsing retaining walls
- Broken windows
- Leaking sewer lines
- Damaged electrical wires and other fire hazards
Check the land around the home as well for signs of surface ruptures, landslides, or liquefaction. Note all the potential hazards and notify everyone in the household about their existence.
After looking at the needs of the household and property, check on nearby neighbors to make sure they are okay. If you find anyone trapped or in need of help, notify the authorities or try to organize rescue efforts. When it is not possible to reach authorities directly, put up an attention-grabbing HELP sign on the residence and spell out SOS on the ground using bright paint.
Do not attempt to contact a bunch of people by phone immediately after the earthquake. Keep the phone lines clear to allow emergency calls to go through without a problem.
Earthquake Insurance for Homeowners
Earthquakes can cause extensive damage to the property and everything inside. As items fall and break, and property damage occurs, the costs can quickly add up. Standard homeowners’ insurance and even renters’ insurance does not typically cover damage caused by an earthquake.
Homeowners can elect to pick up an earthquake insurance plan to stay protected from the potentially devastating repair and replacement costs. This specialty coverage helps homeowners recoup the costs of repairing their dwelling and replacing the damaged items inside. This type of coverage can help with relocation costs as well, while homeowners wait to repair or rebuild their property.
Cost of Earthquake Insurance
Homeowners can talk with their current homeowners’ insurance company about adding earthquake coverage. They will usually elect to add the specialty coverage to the insurance plan, increasing the monthly premium. It is also possible to get a secondary policy, separate from the homeowners’ insurance plan. Either way, shopping around can get homeowners the best rate and coverage levels.
While looking at earthquake insurance policies, take a peek at the deductible as well. For this type of insurance, policy holders cannot select their ideal deductible amount. Instead, it is calculated using the policy limits for the assigned coverage. Most companies set the deductible at 15 percent of the policy limit, though rates can vary by location and other factors. With the 15 percent rate, the deductible on a $500,000 insurance policy would be $75,000.
The deductible only comes due, however, if a claim is filed on that policy. Otherwise, homeowners only need to cover the cost of the monthly premium.
Factors Affecting Earthquake Insurance Costs
An earthquake insurance plan comes with a potentially hefty monthly premium, based on a number of important factors. The property’s location and resulting risk of major earthquakes definitely comes into play. Other factors may include:
- The age of the residence
- Home build and material quality
- Number of stories on the home
- Earthquake retrofit improvements
The selected coverage levels also influence the total cost of earthquake insurance premiums, along with the overall deductible amount.
Upon noting extensive damage to the property or belongings inside after an earthquake, homeowners can file a claim for coverage. They first must assess the damage to see whether it falls under their regular homeowners’ insurance plan or the specialty policy.
Earthquake policies usually do not cover flood or fire damage, even when caused by the initial quake or aftershocks. A call to the insurance company can help homeowners understand the damage their policy covers, so they can decide if they need to file a claim.
Get Started in Improving Your Household Earthquake Preparedness
By following all the proper steps, households can greatly minimize their risk of harm during and after an earthquake. As things can change quickly, it is important for everyone in the household to revisit this topic at least once a year. Review what to do during an earthquake and practice the emergency response steps as often as possible. Also, remember to rotate out emergency supplies and water every six months to keep them ready for consumption. Through diligent checks and double-checks, risks are minimized, helping keep everyone in the household safe and sound when an earthquake strikes.