Editor’s Note: This article has been revised and updated for 2018.
As preppers, we do our best to prepare for disruptive events that will turn our lives upside down. For the most part, we focus first on natural disasters that are common to our immediate area because if there is one thing we know for sure, Mother Nature knows how to throw a real hoe-down when she wants to. One example of such an event is an earthquake.
People who live in an earthquake zone know that an earthquake will happen eventually. For them, it is just a question of how bad, and how much it will affect them personally. For that reason, if you live near a fault line, you better be prepared for the inevitable shaker because it is going to happen.
12 Months of Prepping for Disruptive Events: Earthquakes
Where Do Earthquakes Occur?
For those of us in North America, the biggest danger is anywhere within the “Ring of Fire.” The Ring of Fire is the rim of a continental plate that stretches from the southernmost tip of western South America and running up along the west coast of North America. It loops around under the south coast of Alaska and southeast Russia, then heads back south down the coast of Japan. It goes all the way down to the southern area of Australia.
On planet Earth, there are two other prominent hot areas for quakes, the Alpide belt in the Middle East, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
While these major plate connection areas are a hotbed of seismic activity, they are not the only place an earthquake can occur. Major earthquake zones occur wherever the continental plates meet, and not just on the coastlines of major continents. To be more specific, earthquakes can occur wherever a fault exists.
According to USGS, a fault is a break in the rocks that make up the Earth’s crust, along which rocks on either side have moved past each other. Note, however, that not every crack in the ground is a fault. What defines a fault is the movement of the rock on either side. When that movement is sudden, the released energy causes an earthquake. Some faults are tiny, but others are part of great fault systems along which rocks have slid past each other for hundreds of miles. These fault systems are the boundaries of the huge plates that make up the Earth’s crust and they can exist anywhere. In fact, damaging quakes have occurred in Missouri, South Carolina, Yellowstone National Park, Kentucky and even southeastern Illinois and Ohio.
Most people are unaware that there are several regions deep in the heartland of the US that are vulnerable to quakes. One exists on the southern borders of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas. This same zone spreads down the eastern sides of Kentucky and Tennessee. There is also a small zone that covers the mid-sections of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma as well as a couple of zones that loop across the bottom of Texas, Florida and the Louisiana area. There’s an earthquake zone in northern Maine and one that covers many of the small northeastern states as well.
Earthquake zones are everywhere, or so it would seem.
Not to be excluded, there is also the added influence of man-made earthquakes caused by fracking, nuclear events, and mining. Simply put, it’s a good idea to be prepared for an earthquake, and have preventative measures for recurring aftershocks even if you don’t live in major fault locations.
Before starting, let’s clear the air on one point. The earth will not swallow you up. In fact, the actual earthquake is not what is deadly. What kills during an earthquake is being struck by debris or flying objects or by falling buildings.
With that out of the way, the first thing you should learn is how to identify the start of an earthquake. Sounds are often the first sign an earthquake has started. A strong first signal to the start of an earthquake is a low rumbling or roaring from the ground that gradually increases in magnitude. On occasion, the rumbling can be more gentle and it will be a rolling sensation that signals the start of an earthquake.
Here is the thing. Sometimes those signals come and go without causing any serious damage, but you won’t know that until the quake hits. Those signals could precede a minor disturbance that simply wakes you from your sleep, or they could be the start of a major event.
How to Drop, Cover, and Hold
There are three things you do when you start to feel the first tremble of an earthquake:
DROP – COVER – HOLD!
This is something you practice. It does not matter whether you are in your home, at school, at a shopping center or in a tall building. You must initiate these three steps in order to protect yourself during an earthquake. Practice makes perfect and, as a matter of fact, this is something we drilled monthly when I was a kid growing up in Seattle.
Specifically, when an earthquake strikes:
DROP — DROP down to the floor.
COVER — Take COVER under a sturdy piece of furniture. If that is not possible, seek COVER against an interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. Avoid danger spots near windows, hanging objects, mirrors, or tall furniture.
HOLD — If you take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture, HOLD on to it and be prepared to move with it. HOLD the position until the ground stops shaking and it is safe to move.
Skills, Strategies, and Supplies You Need to Prepare for an Earthquake
Taking care of yourself while you are in the moment (with the Drop, Cover and Hold) is of utmost importance during an earthquake. But there are also some other things you can do in advance to protect yourself from the big one. Let us start with skills and strategies. As you read through the list, you will find that many of these skills and strategies are common sense strategies to prepare for any type of disaster or disruptive event.
Skills and Strategies for Earthquakes
Locate the safe places in each room of your home, workplace and/or school in advance. Walk around and inventory your options. A safe place could be underneath 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. If you do not have sturdy furniture to hold on to, sit on the floor next to an interior wall and cover your head and neck with your arms.
Bolt and brace water heaters, furnaces, and gas appliances to wall studs.
Bolt bookcases, china cabinets, gun safes and other tall furniture to wall studs or to the floor. Have heavy electronics like televisions bolted to a brace or a wall.
Hang heavy items, such as pictures and mirrors, away from beds, couches and anywhere people sleep or sit.
Install strong latches or bolts on cabinets. Large or heavy items should be closest to the floor.
Learn how to shut off the gas valves in your home and keep a wrench handy for that purpose.
A crescent wrench is hanging right above our propane meter.
I hung a 4 in 1 tool in my furnace room so I can get to it quickly.
Keep and maintain an emergency supplies kit in an easy to access location.
Learn CPR and take a first aid course at a local college or hospital.
Place all breakables on lower shelves. Put fasteners on drawers and cabinet doors so they can not slide open on their own.
Hold family earthquake drills. One of the best things you can do for everyone in your family is to practice how to handle an earthquake. The old “huddle in a doorway” advice is not good practice. Instead, learn how to drop and cover (see above). This will keep you from getting hit by flying objects. Teach all family members to get under the nearest sturdy object and hold on tight!
If you have children or a newborn in the home, make sure their sleeping area is safe. Keep hanging toys away from sleeping areas when you live in an area likely to be hit by an earthquake. As a side note, be sure to have plenty of formula and diapers on hand.
Know where your important paperwork is located. Better yet, have a copy stored in a second location such as a flash drive or a secure, fireproof safe. Some of the documents to have safely tucked away include:
Recent photos of family members
Auto, boat or other vehicle license, registration and identification numbers
Social security and Medicare cards
An inventory of furniture and valuables in the house, including a video of your home’s contents or photos
Will and Living Will
Tools and Supplies
In order to be fully prepared, there is an endless list of tools and supplies to keep on hand. That said, at a bare minimum, consider the following items.
- Flashlights, lanterns, and other forms of emergency lighting: For the top EDC flashlights check this article.
- Plenty of Batteries
- Emergency radio
- Work gloves
- Paracord or other type of cordage
- All-purpose Utility knife
- Sturdy shoes and heavy socks
- Utility shut-off tool
- ABC fire extinguisher
- A minimum of one week’s supply of food, water, and prescription drugs. Two weeks is better.
- First aid kit (try putting together your own like this one)
- Spare eyeglasses, hearing aid batteries, and other medical devices used by family members.
- $100 cash in small bills
- Amusements to keep family members occupied while you wait out the emergency. Keep a stock of coloring books, board games, and playing cards ready, as well as plenty of reading material.
What to Do During an Earthquake
If you are indoors:
- Stay inside. Move under a desk or sturdy table and hold on to it. If it moves, move with it. Stay away from windows, bookcases, refrigerators, heavy mirrors, hanging plants and other objects that could fall. Do not go outside until the shaking stops.
- If you’re in the kitchen, move away from the refrigerator, stove, and overhead cupboards.
If you are outdoors:
- If you are outdoors, move to a clear area away from trees, signs, buildings, or downed electrical wires and utility poles. Also stay clear of windows or glass. Get away from buildings. Cover your head with your arms and protect your face from flying debris.
If you are in a downtown area:
- If you are on a sidewalk near a tall building, get into a building’s doorway or lobby to protect yourself from falling bricks, glass and other debris.
If you are driving:
- If you are driving, slowly pull over to the side of the road and stop. Avoid overpasses, power lines, and other hazards. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking stops. Be sure to set your parking brake!
If you are in a wheelchair:
- If you are in a wheelchair, stay in it. Move to safe cover if possible, lock your wheels and protect your head with your arms.
If you are in a stadium or theater or other public facilities:
- If you are able, Drop, Cover, and Hold On. Otherwise, do your best to protect your head and neck with your arms as best possible. Don’t try to leave until the shaking is over. When facility staff indicates you to do so, follow their directions to evacuate the premises.
Regardless of where you are. it is important that you DO NOT try to get to a “safer place” or run outside while the ground is shaking. Movement from one place to another will be very difficult and most earthquake-related injuries and deaths in the United States occur from falling or flying objects hitting you (TVs, lamps, glass, bookcases, etc.) than from collapsed buildings.
Recommendation: Bug-In or Bug Out?
When an earthquake happens, it’s a pretty sure bet that it will be difficult to go anywhere. It is not even safe to try until the area has been secured and hazards cleared away. If you and your family are uninjured and your home is stable, you are safest staying where you are and relying on your preps to keep you safe and secure until it is okay to move.
If you or someone in your family is injured beyond what emergency first aid procedures can handle, or your home or building is damaged to the extent that it is not safe, do not hesitate to seek help. If you have to leave, take your bug-out-bag (or GO bag) with you and make sure to have a copy of your important paperwork with you (this is where a flash drive comes in handy). Seek shelter with friends or relatives is they are in a safe area and you can get to them without putting yourself in harm’s way. Otherwise, seek help from local shelters set up by the Red Cross, church organizations, senior centers, or other community organizations.
When the shaking and rattling from the earthquake subsides, check your home for signs of a gas or water leaks or an electrical short. If in doubt, turn off the utilities. If you smell gas. Leave. Bug-out. Get out of dodge. Although you will be more comfortable in your own home, safety risks comfort. Always.
Follow up to a strong earthquake should include having your chimney inspected if you have a fireplace. It is also a good idea to retain a qualified professional to ensure the sewer or septic lines have not suffered any damage and are functioning properly.
Keeping your Baby Safe
This is one area where extra precautions should be taken now before you experience an earthquake. I mention this specifically because most brochures and readiness books talk about kids, talk about pets, but ignore the special needs infants.
The most important thing you want to do – and do now – is to place the crib in a location where nothing is hanging on the wall above it. Also, keep the room free of any tall or heavy pieces of furniture. Furniture can both fall over and be thrown across the room. Be mindful of the dangers of broken glass, perhaps placing the crib away from a window or mirror as well.
Be sure to keep a minimum of a 72-hour supply of baby supplies such as formula, bottles, food, juices, clothing, disposable diapers, baby wipes and prescribed medications with your emergency kit. It also would not hurt to keep an extra diaper bag with these extra items in your car.
And be sure to install latches on all cupboards (not just those young children can reach) so that nothing can fall on your baby during a quake.
A Resource for the Kids
FEMA has a great website that you can use to help educate your children or grandchildren about earthquakes. It is colorful, lively, and fun. Check out FEMA for Kids and then start your family on a program of monthly drills. Don’t rely on the schools to do this for you.
Every article having to do with earthquake survival has its own twist. Here are a few from this site as well as some other websites worth visiting.
- Dealing with Poo After a Disaster
- Learn How to Shelter in Place
- How to Survive an Earthquake
- Could You Survive An Earthquake?
- Ready.gov: Earthquakes
- Get Prepared with Emergency Car Survival Kits
- Best Survival Food to Consider
In addition, here are additional articles from this series.
The Final Word
Don’t be lulled into thinking you can wait to prepare until someone says “There is going to be an earthquake – it’s time to get ready!” That simply is not going to happen since earthquakes, at this point in time, can not be predicted. As much as we wish we could predict them, scientists, seismologists, and meteorologists can only guess. They can not predict with any kind of certainty when an earthquake will occur.
Will a major North American earthquake happen during our lifetime? Your guess is as good as mine. When I lived in Washington State, I experienced many quakes and during the last big one in 2001, our house was fine but the neighbor’s home fell off its foundation. It was not pretty. I have been through a number of minor quakes since then and am smart enough to know that an earthquake can happen anywhere, anytime, even here in Arizona.
Regardless of where you live, whether in earthquake country of not, for your own safety and survival, your best insurance is to practice the drop, hold and cover and to prepare you home using some of the tips shown above. The moment to start is now.
Here are some of the items mentioned in this article. I own all of them and know with certainty they are good products to have onhand as part of my preps.
On Duty Emergency Gas & Water Shutoff 4-n-1 Tool for Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Fires, Floods, Disasters, and Emergencies: The gas shutoff part does not work as well as a crescent wrench on my propane valve but the rest of the tool is very handy. I especially like the part that will turn the water off at the meter that is located at the street. This is the same tool that is issued to members of CERT.
Portable Outdoor LED Camping Lantern – Collapsible: I admit to owning a number of these collapsible lanterns. They use 30 different LEDS and are powered by AA batteries, including rechargeables. Instead of a switch, you turn these lanterns on by extending the lantern from its collapsed condition. There are many different brands available but I have not found much difference between them.
Dorcy LED Wireless Motion Sensor Flood Lite: This light is awesome. I use mine downstairs as well as on my stairway and when I get up in the middle of the night, they come on automatically. They are quite unobtrusive and give off a ton of light, perfect for an off-grid situation or simply to beef up security in a dark area. Runs for a year on 3 D size batteries.
Cyalume SnapLight Green Light Sticks: These are fantastic. Each lightweight stick glows for 12 hours. They are well priced and hold up well, even when packed around in a pocket or handbag. For more information about glow sticks and chemical lighting, read 10 Reasons to Add Glow Sticks to Your Survival Kit.
Kaito Voyager Trek Solar/Crank AM/FM/SW NOAA Weather Radio with 5-LED Flashlight: This simple to operate radio can be powered by three AAA batteries or the built-in rechargeable Ni-MH battery which in turn can be charged by hand cranking, by solar panel or even by a PC. . The 7-weather channels are pre-programmed and numbered from 1-7, you can easily and conveniently tune into the stations by adjusting the switch. Note that not all emergency radios include the NOAA weather band so this is an important feature.
Morakniv Companion Fixed Blade Outdoor Knife with Carbon Steel Blade: I can not say enough good things about the Morakniv. I have a number of them including the “companion’ with a 4.1-inch blade and the “Craftline” with a 3.6″ blade. I use them in the kitchen as paring and utility knives and with the included sheath and carbon steel blades, they stay super sharp.
Paracord Planet Mil-Spec Commercial Grade 550lb Type III Nylon Paracord: An ideal all-around utility cord in the field, paracord is tough and long lasting. It is made from 550-pound test nylon and features a seven strand core for maximum strength. Also, it is manufactured in the United States. Note that some colors may be more expensive than others. Need ideas? See 44 Really Cool Uses of Paracord for Survival.
Transcend 16GB USB 3.1/3.0 Flash Drive: I am always purchasing flash drives for this and that. I tend to prefer the metal type with a keyring slot. The are more durable and less likely to be misplaced or lost.