What to Do Before, During, and After an Earthquake

What to Do in an Earthquake

Natural Disasters can happen at a moment’s notice. This is especially true when it comes to earthquakes. There are usually no signs of an earthquake until everything starts shaking, whereas with tornadoes, hurricanes, severe storms, they are monitored and the National Weather Service can issue watches and warnings that can warn the public ahead of time.

Living in California my whole life, I have learned quite a few things about earthquake preparedness over the years and have experienced my fair share of shakers. So here’s how you can get somewhat ahead of the curve when it comes to earthquake preparations.

Before an Earthquake

Check Your Insurance Policy!

Before an earthquake occurs, especially if you live in a place where earthquakes are fairly common, such as California, you need to be sure that you walk through your home and assess your situation and all of your assets.

Take pictures of all of your belongings in their proper places and file the photos with your home owners insurance paperwork. It is also a good idea to make sure the coverage includes earthquakes since in many places, such as California, earthquake insurance is not included with a homeowners or renters insurance policy unless requested.

Home damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
It is important to make certain your homeowners insurance covers earthquakes as rarely is there ever “minor damage” to a house after an earthquake. This house collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Check Your Foundations

If you own your home, you should check your foundations to be sure everything is structurally sound. Depending on when your house was built and how well it was designed, there could be some issues in the foundation. According to HD Foundations Inc. (a respected Texas based foundation contractor), here are 8 common signs of foundation problems:

• Foundation cracks or cracks in the walls of your home
• Sinking portions of the foundation
• Foundation upheaval
• Doors around your home that stick or are not easily opened
• Gaps around windows and door frames
• Uneven flooring
• A damp crawl space
• Cabinets or counters separating from the walls

If you own your home, and you are experiencing any of these issues, you can call a professional to help assist you in fixing any foundation issues. If you are a renter, however, you will need to speak to your landlord and figure out what the landlord is doing to help renters be prepared before an earthquake happens. If you are building a house or in the process of buying a home, meet with your contractor to discuss your state’s building code. Make sure that if there are any mistakes that they are corrected before any building continues.

Anchor Tall Furniture and Electronics to Walls

As you are taking photos of your rooms for your insurance policy, also make a checklist of things that can be anchored to a wall to be sure the items will not fall during the earthquake. Things that people commonly anchor down are:

• Bookshelves
• TV stands
• TVs
• Dressers
• Items Hanging from Walls or Ceilings

Falling objects are the cause of most injuries and deaths during an earthquake. You may not realize it, but that large, tall bookcase can easily weigh thousands of pounds. If it falls on top of you, it could severely injure or kill you. Take special note of items that are near where you sleep at night.

Gas and Electrical Shut-offs

It is extremely important that every family member know and understand where to find the shut-offs for all gas and electrics and how to shut them off. Homeowners should fit gas appliances with flexible connections and/or a breakaway gas shut-off device. Make sure members of the household know where to locate the breaker box for the home and how to shut off the power should a quake strike.

It is also extremely important that every member of your household knows the location of the emergency gas shut off valve to your home. This valve is usually located on the side of your house in an area accessible from the front yard. Turning it will shut off all the gas flowing to your home. Make sure you have an emergency gas shut-off wrench attached to the valve area so it can be easily located and used during a major disaster. The simple action of turning off the gas to your house after a quake could keep your home from burning down.

Location of home gas shut off valve.
Find the location of your home’s gas shut-off valve and make sure you keep a wrench nearby for emergencies. This homeowner keeps one zip-tied to their gas meter.

Family Emergency Plans and “Drop, Cover, Hold On”

Before an earthquake, families should come together and develop a family emergency plan. This includes making up a family meeting place in the event the family is separated from each other, and listing phone numbers of emergency contacts to call in case something were to happen. Before an earthquake, families should learn what to do during an earthquake, which is “Drop, Cover, and Hold On.”

DROP to the ground quickly.
COVER your head with your arms from falling objects.
HOLD ON to stable furniture to keep yourself protect from more falling objects.

Assembling an Emergency Survival Kit

In the event of an earthquake, families should have a family emergency kit already assembled. There are many different things that should be included in this kit including:

Water – Ensure you have at least 1 gallon of water per person per day for at least 3 days (store a longer than 3-day supply of water, if possible).
Food – Store at least a 3-day supply of non-perishable food, including food for pets.
Flash lights – Multiple quality flash lights with spare batteries.
Cell phone charger – Car charger, solar, or hand crank powered.
Radio – A portable battery operated radio.
Medical supplies – Basic medical supplies, including a first aid kit and all necessary prescription medicines.
Sanitation items – Plastic bags, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sanitary pads.
Spare batteries – Extra batteries for all battery powered devices, especially for those machines required for daily living (i.e. someone on oxygen).
Clothing and blankets – At least three days of clothing and spare blankets in case you are displaced.
Cash – At least a hundred dollars in case ATM’s are down (the more the better).
Fire extinguisher – A fire extinguisher that is up to date on it’s most recent charge.
Whistle – A whistle to signal for help and assist rescuers in locating you.

This is just a very basic list of a few essentials and will not apply to every family. You can add or take away any other items that pertain to your particular needs within your family.

Installing an Earthquake Alarm?

Believe it or not, there are now earthquake alarms (much like a smoke alarm in a house) that can alert you ahead of time of an impending earthquake, before the shaking starts. These alarms are sensitive to the “P” wave, or the compression wave, that usually happens before the “S” wave, or the shear wave hits.

I use this Quake Alarm in my living room since that is where the family is most likely to be. It had excellent customer reviews on Amazon, with a few reviewers commenting that they receiving 30 seconds or more of warning before an earthquake hit thanks to this device. It’s also super easy to set up and has an excellent battery life. I am going on 5 years and so far have not needed to replace the 9 volt battery.

The “P” wave is a wave that cannot be felt by humans, however these alarms are sensitive to this wave and can buy you precious seconds (or even a minute or more) of time to get prepared before the shaking actually begins. This alarm can wake a person up from sleeping if an earthquake is headed in their direction. It eliminates confusion and gives the customer piece of mind.

During an Earthquake

As soon as you feel the ground shaking beneath you, immediately drop to the ground, before the ground can drop you! Remember “drop, cover, hold on.” Cover your head and if you’re nearby a sturdy object or like a piece of furniture, hold on until the shaking stops. There are certain scenarios when these directions change just a little bit. They are:

If You Can’t Get to the Floor

Get as low as you possibly can to take cover. Stay away from falling objects and windows. Take cover with whatever you have available to you at that time. If you can, try to get next to an interior wall since wall’s are a main support of any structure.

If You Are in Bed

Stay there! It is harder to see hazards and avoid them at night. Staying in bed prevents further injury to yourself or anyone else. Make sure to use your arms to cover you head in case any falling objects come your way.

If You Are Outside

Move away from cable lines, buildings, street lights, and other utility connections such as gas lines. Do you best to get to a large open space with nothing around or above you. A large open parking lot or field would be ideal. Once the scene is safe and open, then drop, cover, and hold on.

If You Are in a Moving Motor Vehicle

Pull over to the side of the road and stop as quickly as possible. Stay in your vehicle and do not stop near buildings, trees, overpasses or utility wires. After the shaking stops, be extremely cautious and on the lookout for damage if you decide to continue driving. Try not to go down roads, bridges, or ramps that you think could have been damaged.

Road damage after earthquake.
If you must continue driving after an earthquake, proceed with extreme caution. Severe road damage may have occurred that may be difficult to spot until it’s too late.

After an Earthquake

After the shaking has stopped, you can get up off of the floor and begin to assess the damage. Check for injuries among your family members and neighbors. Administer any first aid that you are qualified to administer. If you are trapped in debris, do not move so that you will not kick up any dust around you.

Dust from buildings that have collapsed or partially collapsed can be toxic to breath and cause severe lung problems or even suffocate you where you lay. If you have your phone, call or text 911 for help. If possible, use a whistle to help rescue searchers locate you quickly.

Aftershocks and Tsunamis

It is important to remember that after most earthquakes, there are smaller earthquakes, called aftershocks that tend to happen. Aftershocks occur when stress is added to the earthquake stress and it triggers the shakes again. So be cautious not to enter any structures immediately after an earthquake. The structure may have already been severely weakened by the quake and may not survive any aftershocks.

A Tsunami is a huge wave that is caused by an earthquake, a landslide, or another natural disaster. They can cause significant damage far beyond the earthquake that triggers them. If you live by the coast, it is extremely important that you be conscious of possible tsunamis. Turn on a local news station on your radio or television and listen for any tsunami warnings. If you know that your area is prone to tsunami’s, hear a tsunami warning on the radio or television, or you notice the tide receding unexpectedly, you should get inland and to higher ground immediately.

Sukuiso, Japan after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
This is Sukuiso, Japan after a 9.0 earthquake struck the area in 2011 followed by a devastating tsunami. This picture was taken a week after the destruction.

Preventing Further Damages

It is important to respond quickly to anyone who is injured, because the chances are they may be severely injured. Some people reported having to use a fire extinguisher for many small fires that may begin due to aftershocks and power lines being knocked down. If your family has natural gas, it is extremely important that someone cuts the natural gas off as soon as possible to prevent any gas leaks.

If Housing Assistance Is Needed

If you have lost your house in the earthquake and housing assistance is needed, families should contact their local police departments for information on local shelters. After natural disasters, if there are community buildings that were not damaged during the disaster, sometimes those buildings will be opened up as shelters by local officials.

Places like local churches, schools or fire departments will often be used as shelters during major disasters. Officials will likely be there to help families find temporary housing and help those families get back on their feet. Families can also contact different assistance groups, such as the Red Cross and FEMA for assistance.

Grow From Your Experience

If your home did not make it through the earthquake or aftershocks, you will have to begin the rebuilding process. It is important to grow from this experience, and take the opportunity to fix any problems that may have contributed to the damage your home experienced.

For example, if unsecured belongings were damaged, improve how you secure your home’s contents. If your emergency supply kit proved inadequate, use what you learned to make a kit that will better meet your needs. Every experience should be growing experience, and this should be no exception.

Earthquakes can come out of nowhere. With the right tools and the proper readiness steps, you and your family will always be prepared in case the next big one strikes. It’s better to plan for an earthquake and not need that plan, than to have no plan at all.


Earthquake Safety at Home.” August 17, 2016. FEMA. Retrieved May 5, 2018.

Earthquakes.” (n.d.) Ready.gov. Retrieved May 5, 2018.

Tips To Make Your Home Earthquake Ready.” (n.d.) Military.com. Retrieved May 5, 2018.

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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