Earthquake Preparedness

No Warning Means You Should Get Ready Now

building damaged by earthquake
Garry Gay/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Some disasters come with enough warning to get prepared or at least to get to safety. Hurricanes, for example, develop out in the middle of the ocean and crawl along, slowly bearing down on their victims like something out of a classic monster movie. You have time to batten down the hatches and head for safer digs. There are always news reports in the days before a hurricane showing last minute shoppers buying everything from water to 1200 watt generators.

Tornadoes build in certain types of weather. We don't know exactly when they'll get there like we do with hurricanes, but you know a tornado isn't coming on a sunny day. Wildfires are only a concern to people leaving in certain types of terrain and unless you live next to where the fire started, you'll probably hear about it before it gets to you. Floods are also more likely to affect folks living in some areas more than others and might come with a bit of warning.

Earthquakes come as a surprise. There is no warning system for earthquakes yet, so we know when it's happening only when the ground starts moving. And, while there are areas more prone to earthquakes (the West Coast is particularly unstable) they can really happen anywhere. In order to be ready for an earthquake, you have to be ready all the time.

Emergency Supplies

Depending on where you live and what you live in, you may need to evacuate after an earthquake or you might be stuck where you are.

If you live in an area prone to shaking, you probably live in a building designed -- or at least retrofitted -- to withstand quakes up to a maximum intensity set by your state. In that case, you'll probably be safer staying put after a quake, as long as you have enough disaster supplies to survive.

If you do not live in an area that retrofits for earthquake safety, your building may become unsafe after a quake and you'll need to evacuate. Aftershocks -- more shaking that follows the first quake -- could bring down a damaged structure. In that case, you'll want your disaster supplies in a portable form. I call that an evacuation kit.

Water Supplies

Water is your most important asset. If you don't have enough water stored in containers before an earthquake hits, there are tricks to collect the water you need from places in your home.

Whatever happens, do not drink tap water unless you purify it first. Whatever is trapped in your pipes and water heater tank before the earthquake is fine, but turn off the outside water supply before draining your pipes and tank. Small leaks in pipes and fittings after an earthquake can allow outside contamination into what was a safe water supply. You won't be able to tell by sight or taste. Besides, if the water was so bad you could taste the difference, you've already been exposed to the contamination. Your best bet is to use bottled water.

Your Home

Even though earthquakes don't come with all the warnings that hurricanes do, there are still things you can do to ready your house for a little rocking and rolling:

  • Secure tall furniture (wardrobes, bookshelves, etc) to the wall to avoid tipping.
  • Put heavy stuff on lower shelves.
  • Put breakables on lower shelves (upper shelves sway more in an earthquake).
  • Avoid hanging really heavy pictures and mirrors over your headboard or over the couch. No matter where you hang them, secure them well.
  • Put chemicals and cleaning products on bottom shelves in cabinets with latches.

If you have electrical or gas issues in your home, get them fixed. These are potential fire hazards regardless, but earthquakes are like alcohol, they tend to magnify flaws.

You should make sure your home is structurally ready for earthquakes as well.

These are things that are usually part of the building code in areas where earthquakes are common but you might have to hire someone to spruce up your house if you live in a non-earthquake prone part of the country:

  • Flexible pipe fittings so the pipes can go with the flow and won't break.
  • Strap the water heater, refrigerator, furnace and gas appliances to wall studs and bolt them to the floor.
  • Ask your gas company if you should have an automatic gas shut-off valve that is closed by strong vibrations installed on your line.
  • Have a professional inspect your home for structural defects that might be exacerbated by an earthquake.

You and Your Family

I know every expert says you should hold emergency drills in your home for fires and other disasters. I also know most people don't do that. Here are some things to do this week since you're thinking about earthquakes, even if you don't think about them again until next year:

  • Map out an evacuation route in case of fire and in case of a disaster (earthquake, tornado, whatever). Make sure everyone in the family knows the route.
  • Plan where to rendezvous and whom to call in a disaster. If you make the contact person an out of state (or at least out of town) relative or friend, you might have more luck getting through in an actual disaster.
  • Identify the best places to drop and get cover in an earthquake. Go over those places with your family (really drill it with the little kids).

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