How to prepare for an earthquake

Tue Nov 17 2020

A row of Victorian homes with the San Francisco skyline in the background

In July 2019, two earthquakes in small Southern California towns caused nearly $200 million in damage.

Homeowners in Argus and Trona in San Bernardino experienced significant property damage.

While the big earthquakes make headlines, like the San Francisco or Northridge earthquakes in 1989 and 1994 respectively, it’s the smaller quakes that serve as a reminder that homeowners must be ready. After all, 55 earthquakes happen around the world every day.

So it’s time to make a plan. Here’s how to prepare before, during, and after an earthquake.

How to prepare for earthquakes in your neighborhood

California is famous for major earthquakes because it’s home to several major fault lines, including the San Andreas Fault. But did you know that 45 US states and territories face a moderate to very high risk of earthquakes?

An earthquake is caused by shifting rock below the earth’s surface that leads to a sudden, rapid shaking of the earth’s top layer where we live. We don’t yet have foolproof, super early warning systems for earthquakes because we’d need seismometers everywhere – and that’s not happening anytime soon. They’re extremely expensive and must be constantly maintained.

But Google is building an earthquake detection system in partnership with the United States Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services. As of now, users can sign up with ShakeAlert to get alerts when earthquakes are detected.

On the West Coast of the United States, these alerts could provide up to tens of seconds of warning prior to shaking.

That’s not a ton of time, but it’s enough to get somewhere safer – and put your earthquake safety plan into action. Here’s what to do before that day comes.

What to do before an earthquake

To protect yourself, your family, and your home from an earthquake, you need to know your risks, develop a safety plan, have an emergency kit, get the right insurance, and know what to do after the quake.

Planning this ahead of time is critical so you’re prepared for (usually) 10 to 30 seconds of shaking. Let’s dive in.

1. Assess your risk

If you live anywhere in California, earthquakes are a reality – most cities and homes are near a fault line. But if you live in one of the other 44 states or territories where earthquakes can occur, get a good impression of your risk. Talk to neighbors or ask your insurance representative about the earthquake risk for your area, and check out the USGS Latest Earthquakes Map.

Using the gear icon in the top right corner, select “U.S. Faults” to see where major faults are located and where there is recent earthquake activity. You can search by the hour, day, week, or month to get an idea of the seismic activity in the area. The more activity in the area, the more you need to be prepared for an earthquake.

2. Secure your home

Walk around your house and identify items that might fall during the shaking. Buy earthquake putty or adhesives that secure items that might fall off bookshelves and counters. Your local hardware store should also have furniture straps that help you secure dressers and bookshelves to the wall so they are less likely to topple over. Make sure decor hanging on the walls – like mirrors and artwork – are properly secured.

Check the exterior of your home, and find your utility shut-off valves (gas, electric, and water). You’ll want to know where these are after an earthquake in case you need to turn utilities off for safety reasons.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with how to shut them off – you may need a special wrench for your gas shutoff. Make the trip to the hardware store and make that wrench part of your earthquake kit.

Which brings us to your next action item.

3. Create emergency kits

Your earthquake kit, also called an emergency kit, has essential needs items you may not be able to access after a natural disaster. Experts recommend keeping a two-week supply of food, water, and emergency items in an accessible location in your home.

According to, you should have a three-day kit in a backpack that you can grab if you need to evacuate. You can keep a kit at the house, in your car, and at work because you never know where you’ll be when an earthquake happens.

A minimal earthquake kit for three days should include:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day)
  • Food (a three-day supply of non-perishable food)
  • NOAA Weather Radio (battery-powered, solar, or hand crank)
  • Flashlight
  • First-aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Emergency whistle
  • Dust mask (one for each person)
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties
  • Wrench or pliers (including utility shut-off wrench)
  • Can opener
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone charger
  • Pet food and water
  • Medication and eyeglasses (extra in case you can’t get to yours)
  • Cash (small bills and change)

Make copies of your insurance policy, house deed, and identification to store in your emergency kit. Some folks recommend scanning these and keeping them on a flash drive in the kit.

For a larger home kit, you may want to include a complete change of clothing for all family members, sleeping bags, blankets, mess kits, a fire extinguisher, camping stoves and cookware, and simple entertainment, such as books and card games in case help takes several days.

4. Review your homeowners' insurance policy

If you’re in an earthquake-prone area, talk to your insurer about earthquake coverage. A standard homeowners insurance policy doesn’t cover earthquake damage.

5. Outline your post-earthquake plan

Before the shaking ever starts, know what you will do when it stops. You need to know:

  1. How you will get home (if you aren’t home).
  2. How to shut off getting utilities (if needed).
  3. How to meet with your household.
  4. How to contact out-of-town family or friends to let them know you’re safe.

For those with kids, planning your reunification is essential. Have a meetup spot that everyone knows to go to after the shaking stops. This could be the front gate or a specific tree on the property. By having a meetup spot, you’ll be able to quickly ascertain if someone wasn’t able to get out or maybe hurt in the house.

Run earthquake drills so that young children get practice with finding the meetup spot.

What to do during an earthquake

Drop. Cover. Hold on.

As soon as you feel earthquake tremors, stop what you’re doing, drop to the ground, cover your head from anything that might fall on you, and hold on to something. If you are in bed, hold onto the bedpost with a pillow over your head for protection. If you are elsewhere, drop to the ground, crawl under sturdy furniture, like a wooden dining room table, and hold the leg.

While crouching under doorways was a go-to recommendation a long time ago, the Red Cross warns that doorways aren’t stronger than any other part of your house.

If you are outside when the shaking starts, move away from buildings, utility wires, and gas lines. You are at greatest risk of something falling on you from a building collapsing and need to make your way to open space. Again, you’ll need to drop to the ground and stay low just to keep your balance while the earth shakes fervently.

If you are in your car during an earthquake, get as far away from traffic as possible. When possible, stop in an open area where power lines and structures are less likely to fall on you. Do not stop on bridges, in tunnels, or under large trees. Stop the engine and stay in the car. Keep in mind that any cracks and breaks in the pavement may affect your ability to drive away once the shaking stops.

What to do after an earthquake

Once the earthquake is over, it’s time to act on all that planning you’ve done. What you do will depend on where you are when the shaking occurred and how much damage there is.

At work

If you’re at work, grab your emergency kit and evacuate the building. Follow the instructions of emergency personnel regarding road conditions and city-wide damage. If you’re unable to go home, determine where you will shelter (perhaps at work or an emergency shelter), and hunker down.

Request help if you’re injured. If you’re not injured, do what you can to help those who are. Contact family and out-of-town contacts to let them know your status and where you are.

At home

If you’re at home, secure yourself, your family, and your pets first and proceed to the meetup spot. Grab the emergency kit before leaving the house.

Once everyone is accounted for, assess your home’s exterior damage. If you see structural damage, like cracks in the foundation, shut off your utilities to reduce the chance of fires, water pipe breaks, or gas leaks. Don’t go back into the house if there are collapsed walls or ceilings.

Next, determine where you’ll shelter – either in place or an emergency shelter. Take your emergency backpack with you if you must leave. If you’re staying put, make sure your two-week supply of food and water is easily accessible.

As you can see, being in a position to care for yourself and your family after an earthquake means that you’ve prepared long before any shaking starts. Plan ahead and practice your emergency plan so that everyone in the house knows what to do.


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