A Homeowner's Guide to Earthquake Safety

An earthquake is the sudden shaking of the ground that occurs when seismic waves pass through Earth's crust. Unlike other natural phenomena that are common to certain seasons, earthquakes can happen at any time of the year. About 70 to 75 earthquakes happen each year throughout the world. Most countries in the world experience them from time to time, and in the United States, there are 41 states and territories that are at a moderate to high risk of earthquakes. The most common places for earthquakes to strike in America are California and Alaska. In California, earthquakes can cause a lot of damage because of how populated the state is; Alaska experiences the most large earthquakes, but since it's largely uninhabited, the impact on human lives and property isn't as great. But an earthquake can strike anywhere at any time, which is why it's important for people to know what to do to protect themselves and their homes if one does occur.

What Are Earthquakes, and What Causes Them?

Earthquakes cause the ground to shake when pieces of Earth's crust collide or rub against each other. The plates that make up the surface of our planet are constantly moving, and usually, we don't really notice it because the plates will just slowly shift past each other, drift apart, or push together. But sometimes, they get stuck because of the friction between them. Pressure builds up as the plates keep moving, and eventually, that pressure pushes the plates where they're trying to go; the sudden release of this pressure and resulting movement of the plates create seismic waves in the ground. The resulting earthquake can shake buildings and other structures hard enough to make them collapse.

Earthquake Awareness Information

While it's no secret that injuries and deaths can be associated with earthquakes, the actual act of the ground moving usually isn't the direct cause. More often than not, injuries are the result of falling objects or collapsing walls. The best way to avoid injury or death is to try to take a safe position and hunker down until the shaking stops. You should also keep in mind that earthquakes are seldom isolated incidents; it's common for aftershocks to follow the initial shock in the hours, days, weeks, or even months afterward. While these are not as strong, they can still cause damage to already-weakened structures.

Planning for an Earthquake

You can do your part to be prepared for earthquakes by creating a family disaster plan, which is especially important if you live in an area that is at a higher risk of earthquakes.

  • Identify a safe spot in every room of your home where you could go if an earthquake strikes, such as under a sturdy table or against an interior wall that's far away from any furniture that could fall on you. It's safest to move less than 10 feet during an earthquake, so the more safe spots you know about, the better.
  • Practice dropping to the ground, protecting your eyes by pressing your face against your arm, and grabbing hold of something sturdy. By doing this at least twice a year, you can train your body to automatically take these steps in response to an earthquake.
  • Inform any guests in your home, especially babysitters and caregivers, of the earthquake plan so they are prepared in case something happens while they're present.
  • Talk to your insurance agent about the local requirements for earthquake protection, especially if you live in a high-risk area where you may need to purchase earthquake insurance.
  • Get trained in things like first aid and how to use a fire extinguisher so you'll feel prepared and be able to stay calm and collected during an earthquake.
  • Keep all family members in the loop so they know what to do in case an earthquake happens. When everybody is prepared, they are less likely to feel fear and anxiety and are more likely to respond to the situation faster.

What to Tell Children

Share these tips with your kids:

  • Find safe places in your home, classroom, and any other building you spend a lot of time in that you can get to if an earthquake happens.
  • If you're indoors, find a place where you can drop, cover, and hold on. Do not leave the building.
  • Stay in one place until the shaking stops, Once things are back to normal, you can check to see if you are hurt. Then, you can check on others, but be careful: Things may have fallen or broken around you.
  • Look out for fires that may have started because of damage to gas or electrical lines.
  • Always use the stairs after an earthquake, not the elevator. Earthquakes can sometimes damage the parts that make an elevator work, so if you try to use one, it could break and leave you trapped inside.
  • If you're outside during an earthquake, don't try to run inside. Do your best to move away from trees, streetlights, buildings, and power lines, and then crouch down and cover your head.

How to Protect Your Property

  • Have your home evaluated by a structural design engineer to learn about how you can protect your home.
  • Find out if your home is bolted to its foundation; these homes are less likely to see severe damage during earthquakes.
  • Fix any cracks in your foundation or ceiling as soon as possible, and always seek out expert advice if you think that your home may have structural damage.
  • Bolt down gas appliances to reduce the risk of an earthquake-related fire.
  • Bolt heavy furniture like bookcases or cabinets to the wall studs to lessen the likelihood that they'll fall over.
  • Hang heavy items like pictures and mirrors away from beds or couches in case they fall.
  • Install flexible pipe fittings so that your water and gas lines will be less likely to leak if they're shaken around in a quake.
  • Store weed killer, flammable products, and pesticides on the bottom shelves of secure cabinets with latches.
  • Cabinets should have strong bolts and latches to prevent them from flying open in an earthquake.
  • Large, heavy, and fragile objects should be stored on lower shelves so there's less chance of damage or injury if they fall.
  • Brace overhead light fixtures as much as possible, as these are often the first things to fall.
  • Your water heater should be strapped to the wall studs to protect it from damage and leaks.

What to Do During an Earthquake

  • Drop, cover, and hold on.
  • Stay away from windows.
  • Expect fire alarms and sprinklers to go off in your home, apartment, or condo.
  • Move to higher ground if you're in a coastal area; earthquakes can create tsunamis.
  • If you're in a mountainous area, be on high alert for falling rocks and other debris that may have loosened.
  • If you're already indoors, stay indoors until the shaking stops completely.
  • If you're outdoors, find a clear spot away from power lines, streetlights, buildings, and trees and drop to the ground until the shaking stops.
  • If you're in bed, stay there and protect your head with a pillow.
  • If you're in a vehicle, pull over in a clear location and stop. Keep your seat belt fastened until the shaking has stopped.

What to Do After an Earthquake

  • Check for injuries.
  • Put on long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, work gloves, and sturdy shoes to protect yourself from being injured by debris.
  • Do your best to help any injured or trapped people nearby.
  • Eliminate fire hazards and try to extinguish small fires.
  • Clean up any spilled chemicals immediately.
  • Carefully open any cabinet or closet doors to see if the contents have shifted.
  • Inspect your home for damage, and take photos of the house and its contents in case you need to file a claim with your insurance agent.
  • Help your neighbors, especially those who require special assistance.
  • Keep updated on emergency information and instructions via television or radio.
  • Keep an eye out for fallen power lines or gas lines.
  • Stay out of damaged structures.
  • Keep an eye out for structural issues in any building you enter, such as electrical system damage, damage to water and sewage lines, gas leaks, and loose plaster or drywall.
  • Only use your phone to report an emergency; this will help to keep the lines free for emergency calls.
  • Keep a close eye on your pets to make sure that they don't run away. Their behavior can sometimes change dramatically after an earthquake.
  • Expect aftershocks.

Additional Earthquake Resources

By: Jim Olenbush