Seven Ways to Prepare for an Earthquake

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In 1994 a friend of mine was in the Northridge earthquake. She was awakened in the middle of the night by her apartment collapsing around her. She crawled out of the wreckage wearing nothing but her nighty. She met her neighbors in the street. Most were cut, like she was, from scrambling through broken glass on their way out of ruined buildings. Some were missing. Most were found. Several were dead. It was a long time until dawn.

Hearing her recount the story of surviving an earthquake in the middle of the night made me think about surviving an earthquake in the middle of the night. I’m a thousand miles away from California, but I live on a fault line too. My town has a track record. We’re overdue.

Could what happened to her happen to me? What would I do if it did?

image by UN Development Programme

There’s one important difference between California and my home Montana. When she was thrown out of bed, it was a warm night, even though it was January 17. Everyone was standing around barefoot in their pajamas. Nobody was cold. Nobody froze to death. But Montana has a nasty tendency to get very bitterly frigid on a fairly frequent basis, especially in January. If I get bounced out of bed by an earthquake, it might be below zero outside. And people who experience sub zero on a regular basis know how bad it would be to stand around in the street wearing nothing but pajamas with bleeding feet and shock coming on when it’s ten or twenty below zero.

She is my friend, and I still hear the fear in her voice when she remembers that night. It was harrowing and horrifying and hard. And I knew that if it happened to me on one of those nasty mid-winter nights, it could be a whole lot harder. It might be a very very long time until dawn.

And that’s what made me think, ‘What can I do now that would make it less terrible then?’

I made a list. Then I checked off everything on that list. And if you’ve ever wondered, ‘What if….’ then maybe you should look at this list too.

If you check off everything on the list, then if you’re ever bounced out of bed on a sub-zero night, things might be easier for you.

Take a look. Here’s the list.

After seeing pictures of the wreckage of her apartment, I imagined trying to find my glasses in the middle of that mess. If my glasses fly off the nightstand, fall to the floor, and disappear down some dark and dusty crevice, then I am immediately handicapped. I am hopeless and helpless without my glasses.

So I bought a glasses case on a string, of the type worn around the neck. I tied it to my bedpost. Every night for a thousand nights when I’ve gone to bed, I’ve placed my glasses in that case. They’re never on the nightstand any more. I reach for them automatically in the morning. I always know where they are. They are always within arm’s reach.

Nothing can shake them loose.

That glasses case cost me a buck and it bought me a whole lot of peace of mind. If I’m going to be coping with a quake in the middle of the night, I don’t have to go into the chaos blind. For a dollar, I can always find my glasses.

That is the first thing on the list.

Of course, the electricity went out in Northridge, and it was night, so it was dark. And if the same thing happened to me, I would want light immediately available. Normally I keep flashlights in the junk drawer in the kitchen, and in the basement on the tool bench, and in the car under the seat, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to find a flashlight in order to find a flashlight. I didn’t want to waste any time at all fumbling around in the darkness and confusion searching for it. So I bought a flashlight with a wrist strap attached, and I gave it fresh batteries, and I hung it from my bedpost along with my glasses. Then I wondered, what would happen if the batteries went dead? No light, no more! So I bought a package of extra batteries and put them in the draw in my nightstand. I also bought a hand-cranked wind-up flashlight/radio/siren/phone charger. I tuned the radio to the station that’s designated emergency broadcast channel in case of emergency. I hung it by its wrist strap from the bedpost as well. The flashlight cost me a buck, the batteries cost me two, the wind-up one cost me twenty. What will they be worth? Plenty.

That’s the second thing on the list. Got eyes, got light. Good to go.

Where am I going? How am I going to get there?

My friend wanted to get into her car and go somewhere safe, but her car was in the garage and the garage was askew and the garage door would not open. She couldn’t even sit in her car because the doors were locked. The keys were in her purse and her purse was probably on the dining room table, or maybe the kitchen counter, and both places were buried under so many splinters. There was a magnetic key under the bumper but it was dark and she didn’t have a light. She was barefoot and the garage windows had shattered all over the ground. She thought she had a flashlight, but it was in the locked car. (Later it turned out the batteries were dead anyway.) So she just stood around in the street and waited for someone to help her to the hospital.

I don’t want to stand around and wait for someone to show up to help me. If it’s ten below zero, waiting around isn’t an option.

So I had a set of spare car keys made up. I added copies of keys of all the places most important to me—the places I’ll want to check first after a disaster, like my office, and my husband’s business. I clipped the keyring to the wristband of the flashlight hanging on my bedpost. So now, if I’m bleeding and frightened and cold, I can sit in my car and have heat and light and a radio. I’m glad I don’t have a garage, because it will never collapse, trapping my car. I might be able to get to the hospital without waiting for help.

It cost me four dollars to have the keys copied. Keys are third on the list.

If these three things are all you ever do, you will be so much better off when that night arrives than if you never looked at this list at all.

But if you agree that there are many things you can do now that will help you later, then read the rest of the list.

When my friend jumped out of bed, she did it instinctively, without thinking, and without looking before she leapt. She discovered the hard way that every framed family photo had fallen off her dresser top. Every picture on the wall fell. Every window in her apartment shattered. Every mirror broke. The floor was covered with shards of glass. Her injuries came not from the quake, but from cutting her feet while making her way out of the wreckage. In fact, 80% of the injuries treated in area hospitals were for cuts from the knees down.

So I took an old pair of sturdy tennis shoes that I don’t wear any more and I put them underneath my bed.  In one shoe I stuffed a pair of socks, and in the other shoe I stuffed a clean pair of underwear (because if I need ‘em, I’ll be glad they’re there) and also a big bandana. If I’m going to be doing any crying or bleeding or screaming or throwing up, a hanky could come in handy. To make sure that shards of glass didn’t fall into the shoes, I stuffed them into an old pillowcase. Then, thinking about the sub-zero scenario, I added a few more things to that pillowcase: a pair of jeans (with their pockets stuffed with useful items), a warm shirt, a sweatshirt, a hat, and sturdy leather gloves. There was still room left in the pillowcase and plenty of space under the bed, so I added a couple bottles of water – again, very useful if crying, bleeding, screaming, and throwing up is happening. In Northridge, it was a long time before water service was restored. In the pockets of the jeans I placed another hanky, a packet of tissues, some hair ties because I hate having my long hair in my face, a chapstick just for comfort, a whistle because it’s so much easier than shouting, and a few mints to suck on just in case there’s throwing up going on. I added another copy of my car key just in case, and I tucked some folding money in the pockets too because the ATMs and credit card machines aren’t going to work as long as the electricity is down. I might need to buy something, and who knows where my purse will be or how much money I’ll have on hand. If I depended on medication, I would stick extra meds in the pocket too.

I stuffed all that into a pink pillowcase, and then I made up an identical kit for my husband and packed it in a blue pillowcase. In my mind’s eye, I rehearsed the scene a few times in which I practiced NOT jumping out of bed, but instead reaching under the bed for the emergency pillow case first. This way I can at least put on shoes to get out of the house, and have clothes to put on while standing around in the street.

Clothing is fourth on the list.

In Northridge, as in most earthquakes, the shaking broke natural gas lines, water pipes, and electrical lines. Water heaters tipped over, and gas and water poured into basements. Explosions and fires popped up all over. The overwhelmed fire department couldn’t put out the fires because the water mains were broken.

So under my bed went two fire extinguishers – one for my husband, one for me – which cost me $10 each. I learned how to shut off the water, electricity, and natural gas to my home. Shutting off the natural gas requires a wrench, so I put a wrench under my bed, and for good measure I tied another wrench to the gas valve. The fire extinguisher and wrench may well end up saving my house from complete destruction while others burn down around me. In my imagination, I rehearsed putting on my shoes, grabbing the flashlight, and running outside to turn the utilities off before the house blows up.

Then I even spoke with my neighbors and found out where they utilities are located, so if they are trapped in their house, or if they can’t find their glasses or their shoes or a flashlight or a wrench, I can turn their gas lines off before their homes blow up. This was partly altruistic and partly selfish, because if their houses burn down, the fire department isn’t going to be able to do anything about it – and if their houses burn, my house may well burn down too.

The Fire Prevention Kit is fifth on the list.

Next I assembled an emergency tool kit with a variety of miscellaneous items that might come in handy.

Communications will be difficult or non-existent, so to hedge my bets I added a telephone that does not require electricity but can be plugged directly into the phone jack. I also added a set of walkie-talkies, along with spare batteries for them. One for my husband, one for me. I put in a battery operated AM/FM radio that clips to my belt. I found out where to tune it for emergency broadcast information and wrote that in magic marker on the radio itself and marked it on the dial. I stuck in a really good Swiss Army knife, along with pliers and a hammer in case I have to help pull people out of wreckage through shattered windows. I also included some extra flashlights and more batteries because I expect working flashlights will be in short supply. This tool kit went into a draw-string bag under my bed next to the pillowcases.

The tool kit and all its contents are the sixth item.

Then I assembled a 72-hour kit using the guidelines at I collected ready-to-eat food, bottled water, a first aid kit, toilet paper, pet food and other items, packing it into a Rubbermaid tub with a locking lid that I stored in my garden shed in case the entire house collapses.

If you have made it to this seventh item on the list, you will be in better shape than about 99% of your friends and neighbors.

At this point I became very interested in learning more about emergency preparedness, so I took emergency response classes, joined the Red Cross, studied FEMA procedures, and teamed up with other people in my community interested in disaster preparedness. I expanded my emergency kit to include everything I might possibly need: dust masks, goggles, knee pads, elbow pads, and hardhats with headlamps; tents and tarps; floodlights, a generator, Coleman lanterns, and emergency stoves and heaters; bandages and soup; duct tape, plastic sheeting, and spare lumber for covering shattered windows; down coats and sleeping bags; crow bars and car jacks and plenty more fire extinguishers. I don’t expect people to go to such lengths as I did, but if they did – it would sure make things easier for everyone when that day arrives.

FEMA statistics show that the average American will suffer three disasters over the course of a typical lifespan, with ‘disaster’ defined as any event that disrupts an entire community simultaneously. When it comes to disasters, there are only two variables, one of which we can control, and the other of which we cannot: There will either be a disaster or there won’t; and we can either be prepared for a disaster, or not.  When combining these two variables, there are four potential outcomes:

  1. There will be no disaster and I will NOT be prepared. (neutral outcome)
  2. There will be no disaster and I WILL be prepared (neutral outcome)
  3. There WILL be a disaster and I will NOT be prepared (negative outcome)
  4. There WILL be a disaster and I WILL be prepared (positive outcome)

We have two choices. We can either wait around for someone to come help us, or we can be prepared to help ourselves. The failure to consciously choose option #2 means choosing option #1 by default. The post-disaster misery index of both an individual and the community as a whole correlates exactly to the proportion of people who choose option #2.

What’s your choice?

Choose wisely.

Guest post by J. Spencer

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

7 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Prepare for an Earthquake”

  1. I lived in LA for 12 yrs. We had our emergency kit in the garage, the gas shut off wrench stayed handy near the door. We could've been better prepared (and we are now), but we did better than most. What I decided over my year in LA is this: an emergency prep kit makes an OUTSTANDING wedding gift. Someone will probably get them the china they won't use, and the kitchen gadgets that look cool, but it's unlikely that anyone else will give them this. Our former daycare provider got married recently and we gave her collapsible 5 gallon water bottles, water purification tablets, and sleeping bags made from the same stuff as emergency blankets. Even if you think someone already has a basic pack, there are plenty of nice add-ons you can get them, like having sleeping bags instead of just blankets from that silvery emergency blanket stuff.

    Most people know they should do all this, but don't. So far, the people we've given it to really appreciate it. One couple also got a second "emergency" kit, since it was their wedding. It had wine glasses, a bottle of wine, corkscrew, Mad Cow spreadable cheese, and crackers, in a small backpack. All from the Dollar Store, but that part was just for fun anyhow. 🙂

  2. Outstanding story and amazing list. Great idea with the pillow case of supplies too! Imagine the confusion and hysteria one could suffer when shocked awake in the the middle of the night (earthquake, fire alarm, etc). The bag of supplies give you something to immediately focus on with a plan to execute. I'm off to buy a gas wrench and glasses case….

  3. Pingback: Safety Tip of the Day « Are You Ready? Emergency Preparedness & Response

  4. Pingback: My Earthquake Bag |

  5. As a "survivor" of 11,500 earthquakes ,yes the number is correct, in Christchurch New Zealand I can give you a quick precis on the basic minimums we needed. Food and water for 5 days. Candles and some means for cooking; we used the bbq. Water became a problem for some very quickly and we even in this country had people using storm water sumps to get enough to drink after boiling (?)
    We choose a "stay in place" strategy as we lived in a warehouse which was very defensible.
    Fortunately I run a fairly prepared household with months of food and some water, candles gas etc. So gathered in close friends as well. We were without power water etc for 4 days before some minimal services came on in our central area of the city. The situation showed me the prospect of things getting very out of hand if things had taken another 3 days to come back on-line. By my estimate 5-7 days to chaos even in NZ.
    We live in a civilised society but even so we had "loser marauders" with bikes and back-packs looking for places to burgle and I don't mean grocery and hardware stores. They were looking for valuables ,lap-tops etc.

    My advise don't depend on "official" assistance in the first 3 days, it'll take them that long to work out the politics of a response and it'll be worse if you live in a low socio-economic area, I'll guarantee it !!!

    Moral of my story: I've moved my family out of the area and re-settled 300 miles away. We are probably prepped for 6 months with most things, from bikes to tarps to hand operated tools ,seeds, dehydrator and a 10,000 litre water tank. One thing the quakes did was develop a "survivalist" mindset.
    My city is a mess, our 2 businesses destroyed and it will take at least 20 years to become a city again despite optimistic murmuring from many…….
    "Prepare for the worst and you can hope for the best………."

    We choose a "stay in place" strategy as we lived in a warehouse which was very defensible

  6. I’ve got something like the pillowcase, but instead I went to the thrift store and got a backpack. It’s easier to carry. I might add some freezer bags,water purification tablets,small sewing kit, cards (entertainment) and the sas book or this all might just be overkill

  7. I would consider placing a cache of emergency goods outside the house where it can be accessed if I had to leave the house and couldn’t go back inside.

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