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.
Could what happened to her happen to me? What would I do if it did?
Table of contents
- What are Shakers and Rollers?
- Why Geography and Season Matter In Earthquake Safety
- Practicing Earthquake Safety BEFORE an Earthquake
- Assemble a small kit of gear needed for earthquake safety in the immediate aftermath.
- Assemble and Have Ready an Earthquake Emergency Kit
- Earthquake Safety DURING an Earthquake
- Earthquake Safety AFTER an Earthquake
- It’s usually not a one-time event
- Earthquake safety when you’re not at home
- Two Variables, Two Choices
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.
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.
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!
Earthquake Safety AFTER an Earthquake
Once the earthquake stops:
- If you are in bed, put on your shoes and watch out for broken glass and other sharp objects.
- Retrieve your lightsource.
- Check for power. If you have power, check for gas leaks before turning anything on.
- Treat serious injuries.
- Check for gas.
- Treat minor injuries.
- Set up your emergency toileting gear.
- Turn off the water to the water heater.
- Assess whether your house is structurally compromised.
- Check emergency radio for announcements.
- Set up a water station.
- Assess food on hand and create a cooking station.
- 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:
- There will be no disaster, and I will NOT be prepared. (neutral outcome)
- There will be no disaster, and I WILL be prepared. (neutral outcome)
- There WILL be a disaster, and I will NOT be prepared. (negative outcome)
- 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?
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.