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What Should You Do During An Earthquake?

Sam Smith Foundation Repair Consultant

What should you do during an earthquake?

Are you concerned about your earthquake preparedness plan?

If so, you’ve come to the right place!

In this Regional Foundation Repair guide, we answer the most common earthquake preparedness questions, including:

  • Why you should always be prepared for an earthquake
  • How to prepare your home for an earthquake
  • What to do during an active quake (and aftershocks)

And much more!

Earthquakes are an issue that homeowners never want to have to deal with, but unfortunately, it’s becoming much more common. So, let’s walk through how to protect your home and your family from earthquakes in the future!

Would you know what to do if an earthquake was to strike the area where you are now?

Suppose you are in the Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay area, the possibility that a major earthquake measuring magnitude 6.7 will occur within the next 30 years is 60% and 72%, respectively.

Because an earthquake can occur anywhere, it’s important to know what to do when it strikes. Knowing what to do during an earthquake includes being adequately prepared and ensuring that the structure of your house or building can withstand the earthquake. You will also need to know what to do after the earthquake.

Even though many people in the US believe that as long as they are not on the West Coast, they are safe from earthquakes, the reality is that 45 US states and territories are at moderate risk. Therefore, no area is 100 percent safe from being struck by an earthquake.

Is there anything I can do before an earthquake to lessen its impact? Is it possible to retrofit my home and basement to ensure minimal damage during an earthquake? What actions should I take during the earthquake? The earthquake is over; what should I do now? These are the questions we answer in this article.

Helping Americans Learn About What To Do During an Earthquake 

fountain pen lying on " Emergency Preparedness Checklist " form

To assist Americans in getting the right information about what to do in an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had a page entitled, “What to Do During an Earthquake.”

However, an attempt to access the FEMA.gov page today shows that it is no longer online. This seems to be a loss of an important resource that provided Americans with information about earthquake terms and what to do beforeduring, and after the earthquake.

While we were struggling to find the page with information on what to do during an earthquake on FEMA.gov, we decided to do our own research to determine what we need to do if an earthquake hits the area we live.

What Is an Earthquake?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ website, Mass.gov, describes an earthquake as “the sudden, rapid shaking of the earth, caused by the breaking and shifting of subterranean rock.” The site adds, “Initial mild shaking may strengthen and become extremely strong within seconds.”

In most times, major earthquakes are followed by additional earthquakes called aftershocks. These are described by USGS.com, a science agency for the Department of the Interior, as “smaller earthquakes that occur in the same general area during the days to years following a larger event or “mainshock.”

Why Should We Be Concerned About an Earthquake? 

It may be a challenge for someone that lives in a place that an earthquake has never struck to understand what all the fuss about earthquakes is about. However, ask someone who lives in Japan, where earthquakes are a regular occurrence. They will give you a picture of the destruction and loss of human life that can happen during an earthquake.

BBC.com provides an idea of why we should be concerned about earthquakes when it writes, “They can make buildings fall down and set off landslides, as well as having many other deadly effects.”

BBC.co.uk adds that “An earthquake that occurs at the bottom of the sea can push water upwards and create massive waves called tsunamis” that can travel at speeds of up to 500 km/h. This explains why tsunami-struck areas are often razed to the ground, and people caught in the path of these waves die instantly.

Being aware that an earthquake could strike anytime and having the resources to prepare buildings to withstand earthquakes could save lives and property.

The BBC laments that even though scientists can make the building safer and stronger, earthquakes still kill many people. The British public broadcaster proposes that this is because “many quakes happen in parts of the world where people can’t afford to spend lots of money on safety measures.”

Before the Earthquake 

Earthquake seismograph chart

It’s impossible to tell when a major earthquake could occur. USGS.gov says that “scientists can only calculate the probability that a significant earthquake will occur in a specific area within a certain number of years.”

USGS.gov debunks those who say that they can predict earthquakes, listing the following reasons:

  • Such claims do not have a scientific basis as some of these individuals link earthquakes to clouds, bodily aches, and pains, or slugs, which all have nothing to do with earthquakes.
  • They do not define the three elements needed for a prediction: the date and time, the location, and the magnitude.
  • The predictions are often too general, leading to people claiming to have foreseen earthquakes that they actually did not predict.

Therefore, during these days, when everything spreads very fast because of technologies like mobile phones and social media, it is vital to always be careful about where you get your information from. It is advisable to get information from government sources, credible research and educational institutions, or publications.

However, the fact that we can’t predict when an earthquake will occur doesn’t mean that we can’t ensure that we’re ready for one when it actually happens, no matter what time in the future it strikes.

Knowing what to do during an earthquake could be useless if you don’t adequately prepare for it. For example, a person could know that they should switch off the gas from the main supply in case of an earthquake. However, they might still not be unable to do it once the earthquake starts because they did not learn how and when to do it.

Therefore, let’s start by looking at the things you need to do before an earthquake strikes.

Retrofit Your Building 

Exterior of building being retrofitted

Violent earthquakes often separate buildings from their foundations. This can be prevented by a process called seismic retrofitting. This process aims to improve the connection between a house and its foundation. It involves determining the weakest points in the house’s frame and reinforcing them. Usually, these weak points are closer to the foundation or the roof.

Ready.gov proposes that part of preparing for an earthquake involves getting “professional help to assess the building’s structure and then take steps to install non-structural solutions, including foundation bolting, cripple wall bracing, and reinforced chimneys.”

Ready.gov advises that renters should ask their landlords or property managers to make buildings safer. The site adds that “Examples of structures that may be more vulnerable in an earthquake are those not anchored to their foundations or having weak crawl space walls, unbraced pier-and post foundations, or unreinforced masonry walls or foundations.”

Practice for an Earthquake

To ensure that everybody knows what to do during an earthquake, it’s vital to include earthquake drills in your preparation process. The American Red Cross proposes that being prepared should start with families having sessions where they talk about earthquakes so that everyone is clear about what they should do when the earthquake strikes.

Earthquake drills provide an opportunity for people to practice the Drop, Cover, and Hold On technique.

Shakeout.org provides some valuable resources for practicing the Drop, Cover, and Hold On safety measures. The same site explains why this is an appropriate action during an earthquake. It says, “Official rescue teams … who have searched for trapped people in collapsed structures around the world, as well as emergency managers, researchers, and school safety advocates, all agree that Drop, Cover, and Hold On is the appropriate action to reduce injury and death during earthquakes.”

The ShakeOut video below shows how you should do the Drop, Cover, and Hold On action.

Practicing ensures that everyone knows which places to go to within the building during the earthquake. CDC.gov advises that people inside buildings must stay inside, and the people outside must stay outside.

CDC.gov also recommends that the safest places inside a building are those away from glass, hanging objects, large furniture, bookcases, or china cabinets that may fall.

The California Academy of Sciences identifies some safe places around a house that you should keep clear so that it’s easy for people to shelter under them during an earthquake, such as beneath sturdy furniture like a heavy table or desk or against an inside wall.

Specific Actions To Take 

The Michigan Technological University lists some specific actions you should take to ensure that you are adequately prepared for an earthquake:

  • Keep a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries at home.
  • Learn first aid, how to turn off gas, water, and electricity from the main supply.
  • Plan where the family will meet after the earthquake.
  • Place heavy objects that may fall from shelves during an earthquake as low as possible.
  • Anchor cupboards, heavy furniture, and appliances to the floor or wall.

Other items identified by the California Academy of Sciences that you should always keep in a safe place include essential medicines, emergency food, water, non-electric can opener, sturdy shoes, cash, and credit cards.

During the Earthquake 

How you behave during the earthquake will depend on where you are when it strikes.

Stay Indoors If You Are Indoors 

Even though the most intuitive thing to do when an earthquake strikes is to rush for the door, the general advice from credible organizations is that you should stay indoors if you are already indoors.

If you are in a crowded place, everyone is likely to rush for the door, creating a stampede that could result in unnecessary casualties. Therefore, it’s safer to stay away from the door.

Suppose you have adequately practiced and safely arranged your home. In that case, there should be enough space for you to Drop, Cover, and Hold On near an interior wall close to the center of the building. Ensure that you are far from outside doors, windows, or any heavy furniture that may fall.

Mom and child sheltering under table during earthquake

CDC.gov recommends that if you are in the kitchen, and if you’re able to do it, you should quickly switch off the stove. The same organization advises those in bed when the earthquake happens to remain in bed and cover their head with a pillow.

The CDC.gov guidance is based on the assumption that “You are less likely to be injured staying where you are.” This is because “Broken glass on the floor can cause injuries if you walk or roll onto the floor.”

However, the American Red Cross says that you should leave the house immediately and move as far away as possible if you smell gas. Nevertheless, it’s important to look out for debris that could injure you as you make your way out of the building.

In high-rise buildings, CDC.gov recommends that you remain calm and stay in the building but move away from windows and outside walls.

Once the shaking is over and it’s time to leave the building, you should always use the stairs and not the elevator because electricity may go out. When you get outside, find an open space away from buildings and remain there until it’s safe to move.

Move Away From Buildings and Objects If You Are Outdoors 

If you are outdoors, don’t try to get into buildings. Instead, move toward open spaces, away from buildings because the most dangerous place during an earthquake is the area close to exterior walls.

Once you find a clear spot far from buildings, trees, street lamps, and power lines, drop to the ground and remain there until you are sure that the shaking has stopped.

Earthquakecountry.org advises that if you are near the shore, you should move away from buildings and objects and then practice the Drop and Cover technique where possible. However, you must start walking to high ground as soon as the shaking stops because an earthquake could trigger a tsunami.

You should not wait for officials to issue a warning once the shaking has stopped, advises Earthquakecountry.org. The same site also suggests that walking or running toward higher ground is better than driving because debris could cause traffic jams and create other hazards that may slow your progress.

In a Moving Vehicle 

If the earthquake starts while you are in a moving vehicle, pull your car off the road and stop it as soon as possible. It’s vital to remain in your car with your seat belt fastened until the shaking subsides.

Once the situation calms down, start moving again. However, you need to remain extremely alert because there may be debris on the road. Also, some parts of the road may be damaged. If you can, avoid overpasses and bridges because you can’t be sure of their structural integrity following the earthquake.

Trapped Under Debris 

If you are trapped under debris, the idea is to ensure that you remain alive so that rescuers can find you. Thus, avoid inhaling dust as much as possible.

The California State University San Marcos advises that you tap on a wall or metal pipe to help rescuers find you. You can also blow a whistle if you have one. The same source says you should only shout as a last resort because you want to preserve as much energy as possible.

After the Earthquake 

The shaking caused by an earthquake will last only a few seconds, usually 10 to 30 seconds. The most important thing to do after the earthquake is to ensure that you find a safe location. Apart from this, Mass.gov lists some actions you can take:

  • Monitor the news for emergency information.
  • Follow instructions from public safety officials.
  • Check for injuries, call 911 if anyone needs help, and report gas leaks and downed power lines.
  • Avoid downed utility wires and assume that all power lines are live.
  • Only enter damaged buildings when authorities say they are safe.
  • Check your home for damage and take photos or videos of any damage you find, and contact your insurance company immediately.
  • Inform loved ones that you are safe using your phone or social media.
  • Check on family, neighbors, and friends, especially the elderly and those with medical conditions who need additional assistance or live alone.

What Not To Do 

Experts study earthquakes to determine trends and how people are injured during such disasters. Using collected data, they have come up with some recommendations on what people should not do.

The University of Washington lists three actions you should not do during an earthquake.

Do not run outside: Attempting to run outside could place you in harm’s way because falling objects could strike you, and the ground could be unstable, making it hard for you to walk or run without falling.

Do not stand in a doorway: It’s a myth that doorways are stronger than any other part of the building in modern homes. So, avoid the doorway.

Do not get in the “triangle of life”: The “triangle of life” advice is dangerous and based on unfounded assumptions. USGS.gov describes the triangle of life as “a misguided idea about the best location a person should try to occupy during an earthquake.” It adds, “Based on observations of an earthquake in Turkey, the idea doesn’t apply to buildings constructed within the United States.”

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Sam Smith Foundation Repair Consultant
SHORT BIO: Hey, I'm Sam Smith. I'm one of our service techs here at Regional Foundation Repair. I'm here to help you learn more about your home's foundation. I've been doing this for a while, so I have a few insider tips and tricks to share!

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