Are You Ready to Rumble? A Guide to Earthquake Safety

Some of the links in this post may contain affiliate links for your convenience. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

I remember clearly when earthquake safety became real to me.

It was 1994, and a friend of mine was in the Northridge earthquake. She was awakened in the middle of the night by her apartment collapsing around her and crawled out of the wreckage wearing nothing but her nightie.

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 in  Montana, 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: earthquake damaged road

What are Shakers and Rollers?

There are two types of earthquakes in pseudo-geological terms to worry about, Shakers and Rollers. The differences between both could be the reason and way to save your life.


A “Shaker” is the type of earthquake that will shake uncontrollably. It usually does not have life-threatening effects unless it is higher on the Richter Scale. However, it can crumble buildings and break water/sewer and main plumbing lines. At times, it has actually shifted buildings. Damage from Shakers is usually minimal but can be devastating.

These are usually closer to the earth’s surface and are usually related to pressure releases in the crust. Imagine someone holding a glass too tightly, and it explodes. That is what is considered a “Shaker.”


A “Roller,” on the other hand, is a slippage between two different land masses, one on top of another. Imagine someone with a truck hitting your little car, and you have that accordion-like waves in the back of your car (depending on how fast it hits you). Those waves in your car are what can happen on the surface of the earth.

Rollers are frightening.

The 2002 earthquakes in Alaska caused much devastation although not much of it was to buildings and such in urban areas. However, the scarring of the land was seen for hundreds of miles, and in little villages and communities, cabins were literally moved off their foundations.

Why Geography and Season Matter In Earthquake Safety

There’s one important difference between California and my home in Montana. When she was thrown out of bed, it was a warm night, even though it was mid-January. 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 regularly 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.

I still hear the fear in my friend’s voice when she remembers that night. It was harrowing and horrifying and hard.

And I realized that if it happened to me on one of those nasty mid-winter nights, it could be much harder. It might be a very, very long time until dawn.

It’s critical to take into account your location and season when you are preparing for earthquakes. You don’t want to survive the earthquake and perish from exposure to the elements.

Practicing Earthquake Safety BEFORE an Earthquake

Assess Your Surroundings

Now, what you and your family should do to survive is look at your surroundings. These are something to look at, as they may be good or bad for your situation.

  • Do you live in a newer or older house?
  • Are you near power lines?
  • Do you have either gas lines or a fuel oil tank?
  • Do you have water lines or a septic system?
  • Do you see problems with the foundation? Foundation issues (cracks, not sealed correctly, crumbling) may take the house off the foundation.
  • Is the roof going bad? Roofs that are going bad or sagging may collapse in the house.
  • Do you see problems with utility boxes and such on the side of the house?
  • If you see any problems, are they small or large?

Keep an eye on your house and surroundings, and try to fix what problems you can.

Know Where to Turn Off Utilities

Utilities and fuel lines are a touchy subject. Power lines supply the electricity, but if they snap off, it can ignite your house on fire, electrifying that gas meter or, in some cases, the fuel tank on the side of your house, which would be disastrous.

You can call your power company and ask them if there are breaker lines that can be added at a minimal cost to your house if the main power lines snap. They can be also added to the poles that hold the lines and have been in areas that have quite a few trees.

I recommend cutting down branches near power lines as they can be the reason the lines snap. Your power company may do this free of charge if you call and ask about tree management concerning power lines. It makes life easier for them down the road as well.

It’s important to know how to turn off the gas line at your home if you have one. Gas explosions can occur because of earthquakes, which can break gas lines. Know where the gas shutoff valve is and have the right tool somewhere outside to use to turn it off. Be aware that once you turn off the gas, you should not turn it back on yourself. A gas company technician should visit your home and ensure it is safe to turn it back on. There could be a wait for this to happen, too.

It’s good to know how to turn off your electricity and water, too, until after you inspect all the damage in the area.

Water Lines, Wells, Sewer, and Septic Tanks

Water lines, wells, sewer, and septic tanks are a huge problem. If you have water and well lines, they can snap.

In the case of a well, the earthquake may actually move the pump. Not good. Wells that have their pumps shifted may not be able to get water.

If you are in an urban area and the lines snap and start flooding your house, you may not be able to do anything unless you know where the shut-off valve is near the street and inside your home.

Always know where the shut-off is for your water. It may save you and your house.

Urban sewer lines are the same. There is a shut-off valve, but you may have to call your Water and Waste company to find out where it is.

As for septic tanks and/or if your main pipe busts, you will be in a world of hurt. You may have to go dig it up and repair it yourself. Most septic systems are plastic now, but if you do not know the size of your piping, you may not be able to fix it. Also, in the winter, fixing a broken plastic pipe may not be a good idea depending on the temperature. The pipe glue may not stick if it’s cold out.

Secure Items

When the earth shakes, everything shakes, and that includes shelves, cupboards, appliances, mirrors, office equipment, and anything mounted on a wall. Secure everything you can in hopes it won’t add to the debris and destruction. Otherwise, as those things come tumbling down and shattering, not only are you dealing with the fear factor, but you’re also dodging falling objects and trying to get to safety quickly.

Conduct Family Earthquake Drills

The best family earthquake drill advice is simple.

  • Hold a family meeting. Talk about getting under a sturdy piece of furniture and then holding on until the quake ends. Practice Drop, Cover, and Hold On.
  • Go through each room of the house. Look for places to “hide and hold.”
  • Let kids know in advance you’ll be having an earthquake drill
  • Blow a whistle, and yell out, “It’s an earthquake.” See how quickly everyone can get to a safe location.
  • If you are inside, remain inside. Your chances of injury are less if you remain where you are.
  • Do NOT stand in a door frame. In modern construction, doorways are no stronger than other places in a home. Plus, they offer no protection from falling or flying debris.
  • Do NOT use the so-called “Triangle of Life.” Emergency planning experts consider it to be unsafe.
Know how to prepare for an #earthquake with these simple family tips. Click To Tweet

image: earthquake safety information graphic

Take time to run through this drill at different times of the day and even from different locations so your whole family can quickly evaluate where the closest safe spot is to them. It takes mere moments for things to start falling apart when the earth moves.

Young children can be taught the importance of running to their parents in emergency situations. Use a certain phrase that catches their attention to have them come to you so you can get them to safety.

Assemble a small kit of gear needed for earthquake safety in the immediate aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, some really useful things will help make it a little less terrible, things such as shoes and a light source. Read the full list at Gear You Need in the Immediate Aftermath of an Earthquake.

This is not your earthquake emergency kit (although you may also have some of these things in it.)

Assemble and Have Ready an Earthquake Emergency Kit

Place your bug-out bags or emergency kits somewhere that can be easily accessed if a house collapses on it. Garages with no rooms on top of them or sheds may be the easiest places to dig into to find a bug-out bag. If your home is severely damaged, there is a good chance your vehicle may be, too, along with local roads.

Plan on walking to wherever you need to go or plan to camp out in your backyard. Have a few locations in mind since the earthquake damage will be unpredictable.

Read more on what your earthquake-ready bag should include.

Earthquake Safety DURING an Earthquake

Here is how to Drop! Cover! and Hold On!

image: earthquake safety, drop cover hold on


Earthquake Safety AFTER an Earthquake

Once the earthquake stops:

  1. If you are in bed, put on your shoes and watch out for broken glass and other sharp objects.
  2. Retrieve your lightsource.
  3. Check for power. If you have power, check for gas leaks before turning anything on.
  4. Treat serious injuries.
  5. Check for gas.
  6. Treat minor injuries.
  7. Set up your emergency toileting gear.
  8. Turn off the water to the water heater.
  9. Assess whether your house is structurally compromised.
  10. Check emergency radio for announcements.
  11. Set up a water station.
  12. Assess food on hand and create a cooking station.
  13. Help neighbors and treat wounds, and conduct a neighborhood assessment.

It’s usually not a one-time event

Remember that there will probably be aftershocks, leading to more damage. Earthquakes can also trigger landslides, avalanches, and volcanic eruptions (or vice versa on that). Each of these events has its own preparation list.

Earthquake safety when you’re not at home

You may be at work and need to walk home, or you might need to gather family members from school or friends’ houses. You may be stranded on the one highway that leads anywhere because it is damaged. Have enough emergency gear in your vehicle to prepare you for these scenarios. If you live near a volcano, consider having air masks for people and air filters for your car – a vehicle can only drive so far if it’s sucking up ash.

Two Variables, Two Choices

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.

You can prepare for an earthquake by taking just a few steps. I hope you never feel the earth move under your feet, but if you live in an area where it could happen, please take the time to be prepared. A little bit of thinking and planning will pay off if one occurs.

How have you prepared for earthquakes?

Guest post with contributions from Sarah Anne Carter, J. Spencer, and upinak (Alaskan Preppers Network.). Originally published July 6, 2019; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

10 thoughts on “Are You Ready to Rumble? A Guide to Earthquake Safety”

  1. Don’t forget that you may not be in your own home but inside another building – a grocery store, a department store, an office building…my geology prof in college told us ALWAYS to look around whenever we went anywhere and ask ourselves: “what could fall on me?” Never sit in a classroom right underneath or near a raised television set/monitor. Do not sit near large windows. Notice where the exits are. Know where the stairs are in case of electrical failure, in which case the elevators will not work. (Signs posting exits and stairways are common in buildings such as doctors’ offices, banks, apartments etc.) Always be aware.

    In your own home, keep a flashlight near the bed. Keep a pair of sturdy shoes near the bed but not in a place where they might end up with glass shards inside – in other words, if there is a window near your bed don’t put the shoes under it! NEVER hang anything over the bed – no matter how pretty you think it looks to have a candelabra there. Do not hang heavy pictures on the walls behind your bed. Options include a fabric hanging or other soft decorative piece. Use childproof latches inside cabinet or cupboard doors, they will help keep china or glass from flying out and smashing on the floor. Quakehold putty will firmly attach decorative items to a mantel or shelf. There are webbing straps available many places, including Home Depot and Lowe’s, which will anchor your television and computer equipment. Any tall item should be bolted to a wall stud with an L bracket, this includes bookcases, grandfather clocks, entertainment centers, tall bureaus and china cabinets. Water heaters should also be strapped to wall studs if they are inside the house – strap kits are available at home improvement centers. A safer place for a water heater in earthquake country is outside the house in its own cabinet. Also, be sure to check your home. If you live in a home with a crawlspace underneath, be sure that your house is bolted to the foundation. You might have an old sliding glass door which is not safety glass; there is a film which can be attached to older doors which will stabilize the glass in case it breaks.

    For those who want to be really prepared, have a grab-and-go backpack hanging near your bed with gloves, a jacket, dust masks, and a change of clothes. Include a first aid kit. If power goes you may not have tap water available, plan ahead and store 1 gal/per person per day, plan for 7 days. Think of emergency food as well, and a week’s worth of any prescription medications as well as a spare pair of glasses or contact lenses. As with any emergency plan, have a contact person for the family who lives in a different place, such as out-of-state.

    I grew up in Southern CA and these were just normal precautions for us. Once they are done, you won’t worry. Actually, my parents did not implement many of these until after they were affected by a moderate quake (I was not living at home then) and had more losses than they should have, such as china and glass. Hindsight is 20/20. With that said, I lived 52 years in So Cal and never had items damaged due to a quake. I went to work every day with a box in my car containing water, granola bars, a jacket, set of clothes such as jeans and shirt which I could change into if necessary, and a pair of sturdy shoes in case something happened and I had to walk home. (I sure didn’t want to attempt that in a skirt and high heels.) Never happened, but if it had….

    Now we live in Oklahoma and my husband felt so relieved that we weren’t going to have to strap anything…until we started having earthquakes here too! Now he’s in the process of bolting that 2×4 again to the wall studs in back of our entertainment unit so that he can attach the webbing straps!

    If this helps anyone I will be very happy!

  2. Actually, running outside is the worst thing to do in an earthquake. Most people in earthquakes are not injured by structural collapses; they are injured by things falling on them, especially when running outside during a quake.

    The recommendations are DROP, COVER, and HOLD ON. (Most people know about the drop and cover, but don’t realize they should hold on to their sheltering object because a big quake may make it move away from you and take away your protection.) Once the quake has stopped, THEN you evacuate to outside.

    Hopefully, you have some shoes, socks, a headlamp, and gloves under your bed in case a quake happens at night.

  3. We have a fair amount of earthquakes here in Oklahoma. The worst one I actually heard the “roar” people talk about, my house felt like waves of water under my feet, and it was scary the first time. We’re a little more nonchalant about it now.

  4. If you live near a volcano, keep a pair of nylons in your vehicle. Put the leg over the air filter in your car. Be sure to remove and clean the nylons often depending upon how much you drive. My parents used this method to save the engine when they got 2-3 inches of ash from Mt. St. Helen’s.

  5. Being in the UK we don’t have to deal with serious earth quakes and hopefully will never have to.

    These are some great tips and I think could be applied to other natural disasters.

  6. We get a lot of earthquakes here in New Zealand. During one of our recent bigger ones, my mother in law was in the shower. She ran stark naked through through the house and out into the back yard! In the heat of the moment a lot of people panic and don’t think things through. She’s actually a very sensible, level headed woman so it surprised me that she didn’t at least grab the clothes she’d just taken off. Also, their house has floor to ceiling book shelves in almost every room except the bathroom. It would have been safer to stay put. Most people don’t know how they’ll react until the moment is upon them. Having earthquake drills would definitely help to pre programme your brain into doing the right thing.

  7. This is an excellent blog! We are an earthquake insurance company, so I’m always looking for great content. May I quote you and give attribution in an upcoming blog on our site?

    Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *