Earthquakes are a powerful, destructive and unpredictable force of nature. They can strike at any time and anywhere, without warning. They are caused by the movement of the tectonic plates that make up the crust of the Earth. Each continent sits on one or more plates. The problem with those plates is that they are constantly on the move, pushing and grinding against each other. When the energy of such pushing is not released, tension builds up. When the tectonic tension is built up beyond what the friction of the tectonic plates can stop, there is a sudden release. The more tension, the stronger the earthquake. Earthquakes release that tension, until more tension is built up, in which case we get another earthquake. There is nothing that we can currently do to predict them or stop them, we can only prepare.
Take a look at the power of the earthquake and pay particularly close attention to the reactions of people when caught unprepared:
Earthquake Survival begins Before Earthquake Strikes – Preparations
During an earthquake, gravity is not your friend, so look at every object in your house in terms of what it will do to you if it fell.
- Your shelves and book cases, cabinets, mirrors, etc. need to be fastened to walls in such a way that they will not fall on you in case of an earthquake
- Now think of what you have on the shelves – books, vases, flower pots? What would happen if you were on the floor and every one of those objects fell on you? They need to be secure and the heavy objects put on the lower shelves.
- Make sure that your electrical wiring is up to code – your local electrician will know the building code. This should be seriously considered, since many fires are started by faulty electrical wiring.
- Same with gas lines, follow your building code. Ask your plumber about flexible fittings, since they have a better chance of withstanding an earthquake than a rigid metal pipe. One of the hidden risks during and after an earthquake are gas leaks. If you are in an earthquake prone area, you might consider an automatic gas shut-off valve that is triggered by vibrations. Things can go boom if you haven’t taken care of your gas lines and decided to have a smoke in the darkness.
- Get your house up to code, it should be free of cracks and structurally sound. This is serious – it would be unfortunate if you survived the earthquake and died because of a falling roof afterwards.
- Store your chemicals in a safe place, locked in unbreakable containers if possible, under a lock and key. The idea is that even if something happened to the cabinet they are in, the chemicals themselves would still be ok.
- Discuss your earthquake plan with your family
- Hold earthquake drills.
During Earthquake – Your Response
The formula is simple: Drop, Cover, Hold On.
- Drop to the ground
- Take cover
- Hold on until shaking stops
Your movements should be limited only to find a safe place.
If an earthquake catches you indoors:
Drop, Cover, Hold On. Think of things that might fall on you and take appropriate action.
Hide under a (sturdy) table. (I wonder if you can still find any sturdy, good furniture made in America, but that’s another story – I’m assuming you have one)
Stay away from things that will fall on you or burst into a thousand sharp pieces, such as windows, lighting fixtures, ceiling fans.
Something that seems a bit counter-intuitive – if you are in bed, stay in bed, unless there is something like a ceiling fan that can fall on you. Protect your head by a pillow.
Most of your earthquake training will tell you to go to a doorway. The problem with that is that many doorways are not constructed as load-bearing doorways. If you know that it’s a load-bearing doorway, use it. If it isn’t, it can collapse on you and then you’ll be having a bad day indeed.
Stay inside until the earthquake passes. Your instincts will tell you to leave the building, but the reality is that your greatest chance of injury or death is during trying to exit.
Elevators are out of the question.
Some or all basics that we are used to may not be available at all: ambulance, electricity, gas, police, etc. Chances are that everyone will be overworked and busy with the most severe trauma cases, as well as rescue of people from collapsed buildings. The only person you and your family may count on is yourself.
If an earthquake catches you outdoors:
Stay where you are and assess the situation.
If you are close to something that will kill you, move away. Examples of such things are electrical wires, buildings, trees, anything that is, if unbalanced, heavy enough to kill you if it falls on you.
Stay in the open until the earthquake passes. Being close to buildings is dangerous. Many buildings will collapse, but some will be only weakened – do not make the mistake of assuming that if a wall is standing, it’s sound. Nothing could be further from the truth. A large percentage of post-earthquake injuries are attributed to collapsing buildings and falling objects. Do not become a statistic.
If an earthquake happens when you are in a car:
Your vehicle offers additional protection for your head, but (I know this is something you probably know) you should avoid being next to buildings, overpasses, electrical wires, etc. Post-earthquake, you should avoid bridges, ramps, suspended highways. Proceed with caution.
If an earthquake traps you under debris:
It’s a stressful situation, but do not light a cigarette. In fact, be careful not to light any open flame. There might be broken gas lines that tend to go boom…
When trapped with no way out, time is working against you:
You probably have no access to water – breathe through your nose to conserve moisture
Try not to kick up dust – dust is not your friend, especially if it comes from broken up concrete. It contains chemicals that are dangerous to your body. If inhaled, you might begin to cough, worse, your body will treat the chemicals like any other poison – by diluting it, which will use up more of your body’s water.
The building you are in is likely unstable. Moving about may cause more collapse.
What you need is to make your presence known, safely. In order to do that, you can try tapping on a pipe or a wall so that rescuers have an easier time locating you. Shouting may cause you to inhale dust, which you may not feel if you are in darkness.
Now is not the time to relax. Remember that the unexpected may present a danger that is more deadly than the quake itself. There is always the danger of aftershocks. They are usually not as strong as the original earthquake, but still present a grave danger, as they can collapse weakened buildings and cause additional damage.
Check your surroundings, check on your neighbors. Help the injured and the trapped. If someone is gravely injured, do not move them due to risk of aggravating their injuries.
Fire being the most common hazard after an earthquake, see what you can do to extinguish small fires. Use common sense and don’t injure yourself while doing this.
Use your smartphone to gather additional information about your situation. You likely have news apps that will feed you a wealth of information.
Consider investing in a NOAA radio for emergency purposes.
Risk of Tsunami
If you live near a coast, be prepared for a Tsunami. Assume that there is one coming and seek high ground.
If your home is not safe, seek alternate shelter. You can text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 4FEMA (43362) to find shelter nearest you.
Stay away from unsafe areas. Help if requested by authorities. You may return home if the authorities deem it is safe to do so.
If you are driving, anticipate congestion, damaged traffic lights and closed streets. Your return trip will likely not be easy or short, make peace with that thought.
Clean-up and Recovery
When home, enter cautiously. You might not be the first one there. You might have uninvited guests who decited to take advantage of your empty home. If you surprise a looter, you might end up injured or worse, dead. It would be unfortunate if you had survived the earthquake only to become a victim of circumstance. If you smell something fishy going on, call the police and let them sort it out.
When safely back, you will likely have some cleanup to do. It is recommended that you do your cleanup in daylight, so if it’s evening, it’s best to wait till morning.
Dress for success. Put on appropriate clothing, like jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Put on sturdy shoes and protect your eyes. Wear gloves when handling broken glass.
Turn off all electricity (if there is water in the area, call an electrician who will assess the situation – stepping into water and touching a live circuit is NO JOKE, it’s better to leave it to a specialist). Open all doors and cabinets with caution, your dishes, etc. have probably shifted and might fall on you when you open cabinet doors. Clean up chemicals first.
Inspect your home for damage, then get an inspector who will determine if your house is safe to live in.
Check for gas leaks, electrical system damage, water damage, sewage lines damage, etc. If the sewage lines are damaged, do not use your toilet. If water pipes are damaged, tap water is out of the question.
Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify an earthquake hazard:
Aftershock – An earthquake of similar or lesser intensity that follows the main earthquake.
Earthquake – A sudden slipping or movement of a portion of the earth’s crust, accompanied and followed by a series of vibrations.
Epicenter – The place on the earth’s surface directly above the point on the fault where the earthquake rupture began. Once fault slippage begins, it expands along the fault during the earthquake and can extend hundreds of miles before stopping.
Fault – The fracture across which displacement has occurred during an earthquake. The slippage may range from less than an inch to more than 10 yards in a severe earthquake.
Magnitude – The amount of energy released during an earthquake, which is computed from the amplitude of the seismic waves. A magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter Scale indicates an extremely strong earthquake. Each whole number on the scale represents an increase of about 30 times more energy released than the previous whole number represents. Therefore, an earthquake measuring 6.0 is about 30 times more powerful than one measuring 5.0.
Seismic Waves – Vibrations that travel outward from the earthquake fault at speeds of several miles per second. Although fault slippage directly under a structure can cause considerable damage, the vibrations of seismic waves cause most of the destruction during earthquakes.