Earthquakes are a real threat to billions of people around the world. Even if you don’t live somewhere with frequent earthquakes, they can strike anywhere at any time.
Unlike many other forms of natural disasters, though, earthquakes occur with almost no warning, so it’s critical that you’re always prepared for the worst-case scenario. To get you started, here’s our ultimate guide to prepping for an earthquake.
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What Is An Earthquake?
Simply put, an earthquake is the result of two “blocks” of the Earth’s crust quickly slipping past each other as they move.
We experience earthquakes as shaking and trembling of the ground below our feet. This shaking is a direct result of the movement of these tectonic plates past each other.
However, the fault lines between the plates are not perfectly smooth, so these plates often get stuck on each other.
If two plates get stuck together, they start building up energy until the moment that they can finally break free of the friction that’s holding them back. When this happens, all of that built-up energy is instantly released, radiating outward in all directions.
This energy is in the form of seismic waves that shake the Earth and everything on it, creating what we know as an “earthquake”!
Where Do Earthquakes Happen?
According to the US Geological Survey, earthquakes can occur anywhere on Earth. That being said, they most commonly occur within three zones: the “Ring of Fire,” the “Alpide belt,” and the “mid-Atlantic Ridge.”
The Ring of Fire is basically the northern, eastern, and western edge of the Pacific Ocean. Here, there are dozens of tectonic plate boundaries, so there’s a lot of movement of the Earth’s crust.
Many of the plates are subducting (a.k.a. sinking) beneath other plates, which also creates a lot of volcanism in the region.
Interestingly, the Ring of Fire is responsible for up to 90% of earthquakes, while the next most seismically-active region is the Alpide Belt, with 5-6% of the world’s quakes.
The Alpide Belt starts in the eastern Atlantic, travels through the Mediterranean, the Himalaya, and westward to the island of Java in Indonesia.
Although the Alpide Belt is less active than the Ring of Fire, it is responsible for 17% of the world’s largest earthquakes. This includes the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that created a tsunami that killed over 230,000 people.
The third most seismically active area is the mid-Atlantic Ridge. However, most of the region is far from human civilization, with the exception of Iceland, which is actually split in half by the Ridge.
While the vast majority of the world’s earthquakes occur in these three regions, they can happen anywhere.
Good examples of devastating quakes that happened outside these major areas include the 1811-1812 New Madrid, Missouri quakes and the 1886 Charleston, South Carolina quake.
The Importance of Prepping for Earthquakes
Since earthquakes can occur at any time in any place with no warning, it’s important that we’re always prepared. While a little tremor might not seem like a big deal, earthquakes and their after-effects can cause billions of dollars of damage, and kill hundreds of thousands of people.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, one of the costliest single earthquakes on record – the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami – resulted in $40 billion worth of damage. It’s believed that the deadliest earthquake ever happened in Shaanxi Province, China in 1556, killing an estimated 830,000 people.
Meanwhile, the deadliest tsunami (which is caused by an earthquake) in recorded history is the 2004 Indian Ocean event.
This tsunami killed over 230,000 people and is believed to have released twice the amount of energy used during all of World War II.
So, it’s clear that we need to prep for earthquakes, even if we live in a region that’s rarely affected by them. The sheer amount of damage and destruction that an earthquake can cause without notice means that we always need to be prepared for whatever may come.
How to Prep for an Earthquake
It might seem a bit odd to talk about what causes earthquakes and where they occur in an article about how to prep for an earthquake.
But, a thorough understanding of the basics of seismology (the study of earthquakes) and the risks of earthquakes is essential to being able to prepare for them.
While many people think that earthquakes are only a danger in certain parts of the world, someone that understands how earthquakes work and that they can happen anywhere is better able to prepare themselves and their home for this kind of emergency.
Now that you have that knowledge, it’s time to talk about how to prep for an earthquake. Here’s what you need to know:
Prepping Your Home for an Earthquake
The thing to keep in mind when prepping for earthquakes is that the real danger os not the shaking of the Earth.
Rather, earthquakes are dangerous because they can cause buildings and objects to collapse. Plus, they can trigger a tsunami, which can wipe out an entire city in seconds.
So, the key to prepping for an earthquake is to prep your surroundings. Since you have minimal control over the structure of public buildings, all we can really do is focus on how to prepare our homes for an emergency.
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to earthquake-proof your home.
Secure Your Belongings
As we’ve mentioned, earthquakes don’t kill and injure people – objects falling and collapsing on them do. The US Department of Labor states that falling objects are one of the most common causes of earthquake-related injuries.
However, falling objects are also some of the simplest things to prevent in your home. Here are some things to consider when securing your belongings around your home:
- Install Latches On Cupboards. Plates, bowls, and cups falling from your kitchen cupboards can be quite dangerous. You can add door latches to your cupboards to protect yourself and belongings during an earthquake.
- Protect Your Sleeping Areas. If an earthquake happens while you’re awake, you’ll be better prepared to protect yourself. But, if one occurs while you sleep, it will take longer to react. So, be sure to move heavy wall hangings away from all beds in your home to prevent them from falling on you during a nighttime quake.
- Secure Appliances To Studs. If you have a wall-mounted mirror or television, be sure that it’s mounted directly into the studs. Heavy objects that are mounted only into drywall can easily rip off and fall. You can also secure large appliances and furniture, like refrigerators and bookshelves, to studs using angle brackets.
- Move Heavy Items. Particularly large items in your home should be moved to low-level shelves whenever possible. Additionally, keep doorways and escape routes clear of heavy items that could block your exit in an earthquake.
- Strap Down Computers. All desktop computers should be strapped down to prevent any damage. You can get special earthquake straps just for this purpose.
- Protect Your Water Heater. Water heaters can break easily during an earthquake and they’re expensive to replace. You can latch down your water heater with a fabric or metal strap to make it earthquake-proof.
- Secure Decorations. Smaller decorative objects, like vases, can be secured using museum wax to prevent any damage.
- Support Lighting Fixtures. Lighting fixtures are always above our heads, so it’s imperative that they don’t fall during an earthquake. The process of supporting lighting fixtures is a bit more involved, so you may want to consult a professional. FEMA recommends using No. 12 gauge wires for recessed lights and No. 9 gauge wires for pendant fixtures to support them even if the ceiling starts to fall apart.
- Make Your Windows Shatter-Resistant. Flying shards of glass are very dangerous. Unfortunately, they’re also quite likely during a major earthquake. You can install window security film to minimize the likelihood of having broken glass flying around your home.
Consider Earthquake Insurance
It turns out that most homeowners’ and renters’ insurance policies do not cover damage associated with earthquakes (with the exception of damage from earthquake-caused fires).
This is particularly troubling when you think about the fact that there’s no way to prevent your home from getting hit by an earthquake.
Although you can do quite a bit to protect your home from damage from a decent size tremor, a massive quake can be incredibly destructive, despite your best efforts. So, earthquake insurance might be a good idea for your home, depending on where you live.
However, it’s not necessarily easy to find a good earthquake insurance policy. In fact, California is the only state that requires all insurance companies to offer earthquake coverage to anyone that buys homeowners’ or renters’ insurance.
But, there is no law mandating that people must buy earthquake insurance – only that it needs to be offered. In fact, almost 90% of Californians don’t have earthquake insurance, leaving them vulnerable in an emergency.
Of course, if you do choose to buy earthquake insurance, you should know that the main point of it is not to cover the value of all your possessions.
Instead, it’s to ensure that you will always have a roof over your head, even if your home gets destroyed in an earthquake.
Many policies will cover hotel rooms and rental homes and apartments if your home is unsafe to live in after an earthquake. Additionally, many policies will provide you with funds to rebuild your home should your house be seriously damaged.
Some policies will also offer some personal property coverage, which will help reimburse you for anything that’s lost or damaged during an earthquake. The coverage amount varies from policy to policy.
But, if you do ever want to make a claim for personal property loss, it’s important that you frequently document your possessions to prove what was lost.
The best way to do this is to take photos or videos of your most valuable possessions each year so you can send this information to your insurance company if you need to make a claim.
Save these files on multiple USB sticks, and store these with your emergency documents (more on this later).
Should everyone have earthquake insurance? Well, this is really a personal decision. People who live in high-risk earthquake areas are strongly advised to get earthquake insurance.
If you live somewhere with less frequent quakes, then this insurance might not be worth the cost of the premium. But, if you chose to forego earthquake insurance, be sure you have the funds on hand to house yourself temporarily should your home get destroyed.
Improve Your Home’s Structure
According to the Martin Center for Architectural and Urban Studies, 75% of earthquake deaths are due to structural collapses. Indeed, earthquakes can cause massive damage to buildings over a wide area.
For example, the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal are estimated to have destroyed over 600,000 homes, many of which were poorly built.
The large scale of destruction in these earthquakes is due to the region’s vast collection of old, brick buildings that don’t have steel reinforcements. Basically, the buildings in Nepal were no match for the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that rocked the country.
So, ensuring that your home is structurally sound and ready to withstand the forces of an earthquake is paramount. But, the physical process of retrofitting your home to withstand an earthquake will often require professional help.
This is especially true for unreinforced homes made from brick or stone, which can quickly crumble in an earthquake.
In fact, most homes built before 1974 in the US aren’t built to withstand earthquakes, so they are especially prone to collapse. Homes constructed after 1974 were made according to the International Building Code, which specifies certain criteria for earthquake-proofing a building.
Depending on the type of home you own, you have a number of options to retrofit it to withstand the forces of an earthquake. These include:
- Bracing your chimney to prevent collapse
- Reinforcing your crawl-space cripple walls with plywood
- Bolting your home down to its foundation
- Building a retaining wall to prevent landslides on sloping properties
As you might imagine, these home upgrades are not cheap. But, they can protect your home from catastrophic damage. Thankfully, California residents (who are the most at risk of earthquakes in the US) can actually apply to a program to receive grant money to retrofit their homes.
A fire might not be your biggest concern during an earthquake, but it turns out that they are incredibly common in these situations.
More often than not, earthquake fires are caused by broken power and gas lines. In fact, the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 caused fires that burned for three days in the city.
Plus, during an earthquake, extensive road damage and destroyed water mains can make it difficult, if not impossible, to effectively fight fires. But, we can take action to prevent a fire in our home during an earthquake. Here’s what you can do:
- Replace Rigid Connectors. Many of our gas appliances (e.g. ovens and fireplaces) have rigid connectors that can easily break in an earthquake. You can hire a professional to replace these connectors with flexible alternatives that aren’t likely to get damaged by tremors.
- Install an Auto-Shutoff Valve. A gas leak can quickly ignite an explosive fire, so installing an auto-shutoff valve on your tank can truly save lives. Some municipalities, such as Los Angeles, actually require seismic auto-shutoff valves for homes.
Have The Right Supplies
Once your home is ready to withstand an earthquake, it’s important that you have the right supplies to survive days, weeks, or months, without access to the regular supply chain.
Your regular emergency stockpile will have most of what you need to survive.
So, we won’t list off every single item you should have in your emergency stores. Rather, here are some earthquake-specific items you should have ready and available at home:
- Tent. In the event that your home is no longer safe to live in, you’ll need a shelter that can house you and your family for an extended period of time. A large cabin-style tent can be the perfect emergency shelter for the whole family if you have nowhere else to go. Consider packing your tent and some sleeping bags into a sturdy waterproof container kept outside your home so you always have access to it. Your shed is a good place to store your emergency shelter.
- Toolbox. A quality toolbox can help you with the clean-up and repair process after an earthquake. Don’t forget to pack a few pairs of quality work gloves to protect you if you need to move debris or broken glass.
- Emergency Radio. If local internet and power lines are down, you’ll need a way to get updates from the outside world. A small solar and hand crank radio can clue you into the latest news and weather, even after a major earthquake.
- Cash. It’s worth having a decent amount of cash in small bills on hand for after an earthquake. If the power is out, businesses may not accept credit cards, making it impossible to get food or other essential supplies. Have cash packed in with your bug out bags as well as with your tent, just in case you can’t access the emergency supplies in your house.
If you’re interested in more information on supplies to stockpile specifically for an earthquake, check out this guide. However, if you live in a high-risk zone, you should have one of not several full earthquake kits (preferably DIY), that have more than just the basics.
Create An Emergency Plan
The final aspect of earthquake preparedness is to have an emergency plan for you and your family. Having a plan in place will make it easier for you to ensure that your whole family knows what to do if you get separated during a major earthquake.
Your emergency plan should include information about:
- Where you will all meet up after an earthquake if your home is destroyed
- How you will communicate with each other to keep everyone informed
- The names, phone numbers, and addresses of nearby relatives and friends
- Safe places to meet up outside of your area if your local town is destroyed
FEMA actually has a pretty good emergency communications plan guide, which you can download here.
Additionally, it’s important that you have the right documents on hand after an earthquake hits. Documents you might need include:
- Your family’s emergency communications plan
- Medical insurance cards
- Pertinent medical records
- Home insurance records
- Copies of identification documents
- USBs with photos of your valuable posessions
I recommend having a copy of these documents packed into every bug out bag and get home bag that your family has since your home may get destroyed in a large quake. Plus, be sure to store your documents in a fire and water-resistant folder, just in case.
How To Survive An Earthquake
The main point of this article is to help you determine what you need to do to prep during an earthquake. But, no good guide to earthquake preparedness is complete without some top tips for surviving a major tremor.
So, here’s some advice from Ready.gov for surviving an earthquake indoors:
- Stay Low. A large quake can easily knock you off of your feet. As soon as the shaking starts, drop down to the ground to prevent yourself from falling.
- Take Cover. If possible, crawl to a safe location, such as under a desk or table, to protect yourself from falling debris. At a minimum, cover your head and neck with your arms.
- If You’re in Bed, Stay There. You can injure yourself or get caught in debris if you try to take cover in a dark room. Stay in your bed and cover your head and neck with your pillows.
If you’re outside when an earthquake starts, do the following:
- Get Away From Buildings. Structures can collapse during an earthquake, so you want to get as far as possible from them to protect yourself. But, if you’re in a city, getting away from a building might not be possible. In these instances, it’s actually often best to go back inside to avoid falling debris.
- Step Away From Streetlights And Wires. Utility poles and street lights can break and fall on top of you. Additionally, live wires are particularly dangerous and can electrocute people. So, stay away from streetlights, utility poles, and wires, during an earthquake.
- Stop Driving. If you happen to be driving a vehicle when an earthquake starts, immediately pull over and stop driving. Try to avoid stopping under a building, tree, overpass, or utility wires. Additionally, stay in your vehicle, but ensure you’re not on a bridge or ramp during the event. After the earthquake finishes, proceed with caution, just in case the road has been damaged.
What to Do After an Earthquake
Even though the ground may have stopped shaking, the danger is not over. Once an earthquake is
finished, you should stay alert for aftershocks, tsunamis, and other dangers. These are some things to keep in mind:
- Stay Calm If Trapped. Getting trapped in debris is a real danger in an earthquake. If you are trapped, don’t shout unless you hear people nearby as this can cause you to inhale dangerous dust particles. Don’t try to move as you may kick up dust. If possible, use your phone to call for help, use a whistle, or tap on a pipe with a metal object to get someone’s attention.
- Get Out Of Damaged Buildings. Whenever possible, try to exit a damaged building and get to an open outdoor space. If it’s readily accessible, try to grab your bug out bag on the way out of your home, but do not re-enter a damaged building unless officials certify it as safe.
- Listen For Tsunami Alerts. If you live near the coast, pay attention to your local alarm system, as there may be a risk of a tsunami. Should the alert sound, go further inland or get to higher ground immediately as you may have only minutes before the tsunami arrives.
- Call For Help If You Smell Gas. Gas leaks after earthquakes can cause massive fires, so call 911 or your local authorities if you smell any gas near your home.
- Photograph The Damage. Taking photos of the damage to your home and belongings can help you file insurance claims or apply for FEMA grants to rebuild your house.
- Meet Up With Your Family. If you’ve been separated from your family, follow your emergency plan and go to your designated meet up location if you can’t get in contact with them.
As Always, Preparedness Is Key
Since an earthquake can happen anytime and anywhere, being prepared is the only way to protect ourselves in the event of an emergency.
Being ready for an earthquake involves preparing your home to minimize any potential damage, but it also involves knowing what to do both during and after the earthquake so you can keep your family safe.
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, mountain guide, and survival expert with a passion for helping others be prepared for whatever might come their way. She is an expert rifle and firearms handler, thanks to her work in polar bear territory in the Arctic region and is an experienced wilderness medicine instructor/EMT.