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How to prepare for an earthquake

Most earthquakes last less than a minute, but the damage they leave behind can take months to fix. In the wake of an earthquake, additional disasters can crop up — fires, broken utilities, landslides. Resuming normalcy after events like these is never easy, but adequate preparation can help.

How do you prepare for an earthquake? You devise a plan, putting together an emergency kit and taking whatever steps you can to keep your home and family safe before disaster strikes. Doing so can help set your mind at ease, and it could even save your life.

Facts about earthquakes

  • Alaska sees the most earthquake activity of any U.S. state each year, closely followed by California. Most of them are so small that they are not felt at all.

  • Every U.S. state has experienced an earthquake at some point.

  • Some coastal earthquakes can trigger tsunamis.

  • Most earthquakes last about one minute. Some stronger earthquakes last only a few seconds.

  • Earthquakes can have aftershocks that are nearly as powerful as the main quake. Small foreshocks that precede the main quake can also occur.

  • Science does not have a reliable means of predicting earthquakes, which is why they often occur without warning.

Preparing for an earthquake

You don’t know exactly when an earthquake will strike, but if you live in an area that’s prone to them, you can take these steps prepare yourself.

  • Secure items that may come loose or fall over. Make sure anything attached to the wall is not going to fall off and break or injure someone. Store heavy, breakable items closer to the ground where they can’t do as much damage.
  • Gather your emergency supplies. Create an emergency kit including food, water, medication, spare clothing, and any other equipment you need. Keep this close at hand so you can grab it in an emergency.
  • Evaluate your home’s structure. Some older homes are not built to newer standards and are more likely to collapse during an earthquake. Consider getting a professional opinion on how you could minimize the damage an earthquake might cause.
  • Get earthquake insurance. Earthquakes are not covered under a standard insurance policy. If you have a mortgage on your home and live in an area prone to earthquakes, your lender may require you to purchase earthquake insurance to protect their investment.

What to do when an earthquake occurs

When an earthquake occurs, your main goal is to avoid being injured by falling debris. Here are some tips to help.

  • Drop, cover, and hold on. Get down on your hands and knees, and shield your head and neck with your arms. Hold on to a large, steady piece of furniture if you can. If possible, avoid areas where items could fall on you.

  • Stay in bed if you’re there. Cover your head and neck with a pillow to help prevent injury.

  • If you’re in a vehicle, stop in a safe place. Avoid underpasses, overpasses, and areas near buildings, utility wires, and large trees. Wait out the quake.

  • If outside, try to get away from places where debris could fall on you. A large open area, like a field, is best.

A note about aftershocks

It’s difficult to know when an earthquake is really over because there’s always the potential for aftershocks. If an aftershock does occur, follow the procedures listed above.

What to do after an earthquake occurs

  • After an earthquake, your top priority is to seek medical help for yourself or any loved ones who have been injured by falling debris. You should proceed to the nearest medical facility or call 911, depending on your situation.
  • If you’re trapped somewhere, you’ll of course want to alert rescuers to your whereabouts. Send a text message if you can, or bang on a pipe or wall to get attention. If possible, do not shout; you don’t want to inhale debris that could irritate or damage your lungs. Keep a flashlight on hand in case of a situation like this.
  • Any building can sustain structural damage in an earthquake. Avoid any buildings that seem structurally unsound; even though the quake has passed, the lingering damage to the building could still cause you bodily harm. Your best bet is to wait for instructions from the authorities.
  • Bear in mind, too, that a tsunami could develop in the wake of an earthquake. If you believe there is a risk of a tsunami, head for higher ground. If there is no higher ground nearby, move inland.

Earthquake safety tips

  • Don’t run outside during an earthquake. It’s best to stay where you are unless there’s an immediate danger of something falling on top of you.
  • Don’t stand in a doorway. This won’t do anything to help protect you from falling debris.
  • Don’t get out of your vehicle if a power line falls on it. You could get electrocuted.
  • Don’t hang heavy pictures on the wall above a bed or couch. These items could cause serious injury if they were to fall on someone.
  • Don’t make unnecessary phone calls. Phone lines may be down or busy after an earthquake. They should be kept clear so that those who need emergency assistance can get it. Limit your communications with family and friends to texts or social media.
  • Don’t turn the gas back on if you turned it off. A trained professional must do this.
  • Don’t light a match if you suspect there’s a gas leak. Leave home and contact help.
  • Be careful when moving debris. Wear sturdy shoes and gloves to protect yourself from nails and other sharp objects. Open cabinets carefully, as items may have shifted during the earthquake and could fall out on you.

Earthquake disaster preparedness guide FAQ

Are earthquakes more likely to happen at certain times of the year or in certain weather conditions?

A. No. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that earthquakes occur more frequently in certain types of weather. They can occur anywhere at any point during the year.

How much does earthquake insurance cost?

A. It depends on the size and cost of your home and the area in which you live. The average earthquake insurance policy costs about $800 per year, but you can expect to pay more if you live in an area that is especially prone to earthquakes.

How can I find out the risk of earthquakes where I live?

A. You can get a sense of how likely damaging earthquakes are in your area by looking at the National Seismic Hazard Maps available from the U.S. Geological Survey.


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