Emergency Preparedness

Earthquake Preparation

Living With Earthquakes

Having lived in California and the San Francisco area for most of my life, I speak with personal earthquake experience.

The frightening thing about earthquakes is they happen without warning. Large earthquakes seem surreal, and are sublimely powerful in a way that dwarfs the human experience.

During the 1989 earthquake, I was missing the start of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s in order to meet with a client on a large remodel project in the foothills around Stanford. The client had not moved in yet and the empty home was only about half a mile from the San Andreas fault.

Image of collapsed apartment during 1989 San Francisco earthquake
Earthquake damage-San Francisco 1989

We were meeting in the kitchen when the earthquake began with a strong jerk and loud bang. Then shaking started. And intensified. The quake repeatedly jolted the client, myself, the house and the swimming pool, tossing us around like pennies on a trampoline. We staggered outside just as the brick fireplace snapped off and crashed through the living room ceiling dragging half a dozen steel rebars with it.

As if in slow motion, I remember watching in awe as the surrounding hillsides, covered with giant oak trees rolled around as if on the surface of the ocean. The shaking went on long enough that it felt very much as if everything would break. Then it quit. I looked at my client, then around at the still-quivering empty pool and shattered roof and said, “let’s shut this place down and get home!” I had sense enough to turn off the natural gas supply, the water main and then disconnected the power and left.

For me, getting home was only about a 15-minute drive back to Palo Alto. Power was out everywhere, but traffic had cleared off the streets. Page Mill road runs under the 280 freeway west of town and it had foot wide crack all the way across the four lanes of roadway. I had a new 4×4 Ford Bronco at the time and it made it across the crack with a startling jolt. Some other cars were damaged trying to cross.

When I got home it was getting dark.

My wife, our two kids and Missy our retriever were quietly sitting and reading with candles burning. Thankfully they were all fine. So was the structure of our single-story ranch house. Fortunately, our van had not been in the garage at the time of the quake because every shelf was tipped over and tools, paint and any stored stuff overhead was thrown everywhere.

Our pool had emptied out, just like at my client’s home, and for some reason most of the water had flowed through the garage.

Our family was safe… but totally unprepared. We had been talking about the possibility of this happening for years and had meant to get around to it. Now we were stuck with what we had.

Fortunately, the power was only off for about a day and we had enough food and water in the house to get by. We could not get any news. The local radio and TV stations were all knocked out. With power off, using battery and car radios, we could only pick up distant stations that were still on the air but too far away from the damage to know what was really going on. Not knowing the extent of the damage, or what to expect next was the hardest part during those few dark hours.

There were neighbors, local police and fire personnel around, but they were all busy with their own concerns. We were safe but felt alone.

Looking back on it now, physically surviving the initial disaster is one thing. Being able to deal with no information and the feeling of, or actually being alone afterward is another. Having family and good neighbors helps, but better plan on being alone for a while.  Earthquakes and other major disasters that happen without warning are definitely “come as you are situations.” Education can help you understand what might occur, but can’t predict where, or the circumstances you will be in when it happens. During a strong quake you will not be doing much but hanging on. The good news is it all happens too fast for fear to set in.

So here are some tips to prepare a plan, not just for food, water and possible injury afterward, but for dealing with separation, communication, and how to care for your pets. 

Here is what Federal Emergency Management Agency has to say about earthquakes

What is an Earthquake

An earthquake is the sudden, rapid shaking of the earth, caused by the breaking and shifting of subterranean rock as it releases strain that has accumulated over a long time. Initial mild shaking may strengthen and become extremely violent within seconds. Additional earthquakes, called aftershocks, may follow the initial earthquake. Most are smaller than the initial earthquake but larger magnitude aftershocks also occur.  Earthquakes may cause household items to become dangerous projectiles; cause buildings to move off foundations or collapse, damage utilities, roads and structures such as bridges and dams, or cause fires and explosions. They may also trigger landslides, avalanches, and tsunamis.

Where can this happen

All 50 states and 5 U.S. territories are at some risk for earthquakes. The risk is higher in identified seismic zones including the San Andreas Fault in California, the Cascadia Subduction Zone in western Oregon and Washington and Alaska, the New Madrid Fault Zone spanning areas in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and areas on the east coast including the mid-Atlantic, coastal South Carolina and New England.

When might this occur

Earthquakes can happen at any time of the year and occur without warning, although they usually last less than one minute. Aftershocks following the initial earthquake may occur for hours, days, or even months. Earthquakes cannot be predicted — although scientists are working on it!



Before An Earthquake

  • Before an earthquake occurs, secure items that could fall or move and cause injuries or damage (e.g., bookshelves, mirrors, light fixtures, televisions, computers, hot water heaters. Move beds away from windows and secure any hanging items over beds, couches, cribs or other places people sit or lie.
  • Practice how to “Drop, Cover, and Hold On!”
    • Plan and practice how to Drop to the ground, Cover your head and neck with your arms, and if a safer place is nearby that you can get to without exposing yourself to flying debris, crawl to it and Hold On to maintain cover.
    • To react quickly you must practice often. You may only have seconds to protect yourself in an earthquake.
  • Store critical supplies (e.g., water, medication) and documents.
  • Plan how you will communicate with family members, including multiple methods by making a family emergency communication plan.
  • Consult a structural engineer to evaluate your home and ask about updates to strengthen areas that would be weak during an earthquake. When choosing your home or business to rent or buy, check if the building is earthquake resistant per local building codes

During an Earthquake

If you are inside a building:
  • Drop down onto your hands and knees so the earthquake doesn’t knock you down. Move to the ground (before the earthquake moves you!).
  • Cover your head and neck with your arms to protect yourself from falling debris.
    • If you are in danger from falling objects, and you can move safely, crawl for additional cover under a sturdy desk or table.
    • When no sturdy shelter is nearby, crawl away from windows, next to an interior wall. Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as light fixtures or furniture.
  • Hold on to any sturdy covering so you can move with it until the shaking stops.
  • Stay where you are until the shaking stops. Do not run outside. Do not get in a doorway as this does not provide protection from falling or flying objects, and you may not be able to remain standing.
  • If getting safely to the floor to take cover won’t be possible:
    • Getting safely to the floor will be difficult, actions before an earthquake to secure or remove items that can fall or become projectiles should be a priority to create spaces.
    • Identify an away from windows and objects that could fall on you.  The Earthquake Country Alliance advises getting as low as possible to the floor. People who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices should lock their wheels, bend over, and remain seated until the shaking stops. Protect your head and neck with your arms, a pillow, a book, or whatever is available.
If you are in bed when you feel the shaking:
  • If you are in bed: Stay there and Cover your head and neck with a pillow. At night, hazards and debris are difficult to see and avoid; attempts to move in the dark result in more injuries than remaining in bed.
When you are outside when you feel the shaking:
  • If you are outdoors when the shaking starts, move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires. Once in the open, “Drop, Cover, and Hold On.” Stay there until the shaking stops.
When you are in a moving vehicle and you feel the shaking:
  • It is difficult to control a vehicle during the shaking. If you are in a moving vehicle, stop as quickly and safely as possible and stay in the vehicle. Avoid stopping near or under buildings, trees, overpasses, and utility wires. Proceed cautiously once the earthquake has stopped. Avoid roads, bridges, or ramps that the earthquake may have damaged.

During an Earthquake

  • Shaking will eventually stop, when it does, look around to see if the building is damaged. If there is a clear path to safety, leave the building and go to an open space. Stay away from damaged areas.
  • Do not immediately move about or kick up dust if you are trapped.
  • If you have a cell phone with you, use it to call or text for help.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall or use a whistle, if you have one, so that rescuers can locate you.
  • Once safe, monitor local news reports via battery operated radio, TV, social media, and cell phone text alerts for emergency information and instructions.
  • Check for injuries and provide assistance if you have training. Assist with rescues when you can do so safely.
  • When you are near the coast, learn about possible tsunamis in the area. If you are in an area that may have tsunamis, when the shaking stops, walk inland and to higher ground immediately. Monitor official reports for more information on the area’s tsunami evacuation plans.
  • Use extreme caution during post-disaster clean-up of buildings and around debris. Do not attempt to remove heavy debris by yourself. Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, work gloves, and sturdy, thick-soled shoes during clean-up.
  • Be prepared to “Drop, Cover, and Hold on” in the likely event of aftershocks.

Tips from the Red Cross

If you are indoors

DROP, COVER and HOLD ON! Move as little as possible – most injuries during earthquakes occur because of people moving around, falling and suffering sprains, fractures and head injuries. Try to protect your head and torso.

  • If you are in bed, stay there, curl up and hold on, and cover your head.
  • Stay indoors until the shaking stops and you are sure it is safe to exit. 
  • If you must leave a large building after the shaking stops, use stairs rather than an elevator in case of aftershocks, power outages or other damage. 
  • Be aware that smoke alarms and sprinkler systems frequently go off in buildings during an earthquake, even if there is no fire.
  • If you smell gas, get out of the house and move as far away as possible.
  • Before you leave any building check to make sure that there is no debris from the building that could fall on you.

If you are Outdoors 

  • Find a clear spot and drop to the ground. Stay there until the shaking stops.
  • Try to get as far away from buildings, power lines, trees, and streetlights as possible.
  • If you’re in a vehicle, pull over to a clear location and stop. Avoid bridges, overpasses and power lines if possible. 
  • Stay inside with your seatbelt fastened until the shaking stops. 
  • After the shaking has stopped, drive on carefully, avoiding bridges and ramps that may have been damaged. If a power line falls on your vehicle, do not get out. Wait for assistance.
  • In mountainous areas or near unstable slopes or cliffs, be alert for falling rocks and other debris as well as landslides.

Staying Safe After an Earthquake

1. If away from home, try to respect authorities and return only when they say it is safe to do so.

2. Check yourself for injuries and get first aid, if necessary, before helping injured or trapped persons.

3. After an earthquake, the disaster may continue. Expect and prepare for potential aftershocks, landslides or even a tsunami if you live on a coast.

4. Each time you feel an aftershock, DROP, COVER and HOLD ON. Aftershocks frequently occur minutes, days, weeks and even months following an earthquake.

5. Look for and extinguish small fires. Fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake.

  • If you are at home, look quickly for damage in and around your home and get everyone out if your home is unsafe.
  • Listen to a portable, battery operated or hand crank radio for updated emergency information and instructions.
  • Pay attention to how you and your loved ones are experiencing and handling stress. Promote emotional recovery by following these tips.
  • Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control.
  • Help people who require additional assistance—infants, elderly people, those without transportation, large families who may need additional help in an emergency situation, people with disabilities, and the people who care for them.
  • Be careful when driving after an earthquake and anticipate road damage and traffic light outages.
  • Stay out of damaged buildings. 
  • Use extreme caution and examine walls, floors, doors, staircases and windows to check for damage.
  • Watch out for fallen power lines or broken gas lines and report them to the utility company immediately.
  • If you smell natural or propane gas or hear a hissing noise, leave immediately and call the fire department. Shut off the gas at the meter if you can and know how.
  • Open closet and cabinet doors very carefully as contents may have shifted.

Follow these tips for inspecting your home’s structure and utilities & systems after an earthquake. 

  • Take pictures of home damage, both of the buildings and its contents, for insurance purposes.
  • Wear protective clothing, including long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy shoes, and be cautious.
  • Clean up spilled medications, bleach, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately. 
  • Learn about your area’s seismic building standards and land use codes before you begin any construction.

The best way to protect your household from the effects of a disaster is to have a disaster plan. Follow our tips on preparing your home for an earthquake. 

Learn more about how to clean up after an earthquake, including the supplies you’ll need and how to handle fire hazards such as gas, electricity and chemicals.

  • Talk about earthquakes with your family so that everyone knows what to do in case of an earthquake. Discussing ahead of time helps reduce fear, particularly for younger children.
  • Check at your workplace and your children’s schools and day care centers to learn about their earthquake emergency plans. 
  • Pick safe places in each room of your home, workplace and/or school. A safe place could be under a piece of furniture or against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases or tall furniture that could fall on you.
  • Practice DROP, COVER and HOLD ON in each safe place. 
  • Make sure you have access to NOAA radio broadcasts: 
  • Find an online NOAA radio station
  • Search for a NOAA radio app in the Apple Store >> or Google Play>>
  • Purchase a battery-powered or hand-crank NOAA radio in the Red Cross Store
  • Keep a flashlight and any low-heeled shoes by each person’s bed.
  • Store items in an accessible place and keep them in sturdy containers so that they can be carried easily.

Pets and Emergencies

If you are a pet owner, any emergency plan must include your pets. Being prepared can save their lives. When you have to evacuate your home during a disaster, the best way to protect your pets is to evacuate them too. If it’s not safe for you to stay behind then it’s not safe to leave pets behind either. 

  • Know which hotels and motels along your evacuation route will accept pets in an emergency. Call ahead for reservations if you know you may need to evacuate. Ask if no pet policies could be waived in an emergency.
  • Most American Red Cross shelters cannot accept pets because of health and safety concerns and other considerations. Service animals that assist people with disabilities are allowed in Red Cross shelters.
  • Know which friends, relatives, boarding facilities, animal shelters or veterinarians can care for your animals in an emergency. Prepare a list with phone numbers.
  • Although your animals may be more comfortable together, be prepared to house them separately.
  • Include your pets in evacuation drills so that they become used to entering and traveling in their carriers calmly.
  • Make sure that your pet’s vaccinations are current and that all dogs and cats are wearing collars with securely fastened, up-to-date identification. Many pet shelters require proof of current vaccinations to reduce the spread of disease.
  • Consider having your pet “microchipped” by your veterinarian.
  • Read more about our safety tips for traveling with your pet.

Your pet kit should include:

  • Sturdy leashes, harnesses and/or carriers to transport pets safely and ensure that they can’t escape.
  • Food, drinking water, bowls, cat litter/pan and a manual can opener if you pet eats canned food.
  • Medications and copies of medical records stored in a waterproof container.
  • A first aid kit.
  • Current photos of you with your pet(s) in case they get lost. Since many pets look alike, this will help to eliminate mistaken identity and confusion.
  • Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian in case you have to foster or board your pets.
  • Pet beds and toys, if easily transportable.

Help Emergency Workers Find Your Pets

The ASPCA recommends using a rescue sticker alert to let people know that pets are inside your home. Make sure it is visible to rescue workers, and that it includes the types and number of pets in your household and your veterinarian’s phone number.

If you must evacuate with your pets (and if time allows) write “EVACUATED” across the stickers so rescue workers don’t waste time looking for them.

Your pet’s behavior may change dramatically after a disaster, becoming aggressive or defensive. Be aware of their well being and protect them from hazards to ensure the safety of other people and animals.

  • Watch your animals closely and keep them under your direct control as fences and gates may have been damaged.
  • Pets may become disoriented, particularly if the disaster has affected scent markers that normally allow them to find their home.
  • Be aware of hazards at nose and paw or hoof level, particularly debris, spilled chemicals, fertilizers and other substances that might not seem to be dangerous to humans.
  • Consult your veterinarian if any behavior problems persist.

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