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How To Prepare Your Home For An Earthquake

Molly Grace11-Minute Read
September 15, 2020

It’s a scary thought: one day, you could just be going about your daily life when, miles away, a billions-of-years-old geological mechanism causes the ground to shift just enough to completely upend your life.

Most earthquakes aren’t this dramatic, but even the small ones are still worth preparing for. Though natural forces are unpredictable, our response to them doesn’t have to be.

Knowing how to prepare for an earthquake can be a literal lifesaver. Here’s what you need to know to prepare your home and your family.

Preparing For An Earthquake Before It Happens

Some areas of the country are more prone to earthquakes than others, due to the location of faults, which are fractures in the earth’s surface that move against each other.

Sometimes, the edges of these faults will get stuck, pushing against each other and building up pressure. When they finally are able to move, all that energy is released, causing an earthquake.

Though earthquakes can happen anywhere, larger ones tend to be concentrated near tectonic plate boundaries. This is why California experiences so many earthquakes – it’s right at the boundary between the North American plate and the Pacific plate.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know when an earthquake will happen. If you live in a high-risk area for earthquakes, planning ahead is vital.

1. Make A Plan

When disaster strikes, our thoughts immediately go to our loved ones: Is everyone OK? How am I going to get ahold of them if phone lines are down? The anxiety of not knowing can be incredibly stressful.

Whoever your people are – family, friends, roommates, neighbors, beloved household pets – get together and have a plan for what you’ll do and how you’ll communicate in the event of an earthquake.

Have a list with contact information for each person in your circle and any relevant entities: workplaces, schools, doctors or hospitals, etc. Consider having this information printed on wallet-sized cards that each person can carry around with them.

In addition to contact information for everyone in your household or local circle, experts recommend also having contact information for someone you trust who lives outside the area, such as a family member who lives in another state. In a large-scale emergency, it may be easier to make long-distance calls. Plus, having someone who isn’t experiencing the disaster keep track of who’s OK and who might need assistance can be helpful. Social media has proven to be good for this purpose as well, as we’ve seen with Facebook’s Safety Check feature.

Agree on a meeting place you’ll all go to if you aren’t together when the earthquake hits. You may decide on your house as your meeting place, but you should also designate other spots in case you can’t get there. Have spots designated in your neighborhood, in your community and out of town.

Make a plan for household members with additional needs, such as a person who relies on electric-powered medical equipment.

During emergencies and disasters where lots of people are making calls at once, phone lines often become overloaded and jammed, meaning you might not be able to reach anyone with a voice call. Text messages are more likely to get through, and should be your method of choice for communication. If someone in your household doesn’t know how to send texts, practice with them.

2. Know Your Risk

Knowing how likely is it that your area will experience a damaging earthquake can help you determine how much preparation you’ll need to do.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maintains hazard maps that can give you an idea of how often earthquakes happen in a given area. This map tells you the general earthquake hazard for your area.

Hazard map of the US.

However, just because you don’t live in a dark red area on the map doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an earthquake plan. Even if it’s just a part of your household’s general emergency/natural disaster plan, something is better than nothing.

Knowing your risk level can also help you determine whether or not it makes sense for you to purchase an earthquake insurance policy, as regular homeowners insurance policies don’t cover earthquake damage.

3. Secure Heavy Objects

During an earthquake, the most immediate threat to your safety is going to be your belongings getting thrown around by the force of the shaking. Top-heavy items, such as bookcases or refrigerators, should be secured to wall studs using the appropriate hardware. Water heaters should be secured to the wall with metal straps.

Cabinets may swing open, causing the contents inside to come crashing out. Consider installing latches on your cabinet doors to prevent this from happening.

If you have a lot of knickknacks on display, use a substance like museum putty to secure them. Heavy items should be stored on lower shelves. Hanging objects should be hung on closed hooks.

4. Relocate Hazards

While some items can simply be secured, others should be moved if they’re in a particularly dangerous location.

That shelf above your bed that holds a lot of big books? Move it somewhere else. Same goes for the heavy mirror that hangs directly above the spot on your couch where you spend your leisure time.

Heavy objects that could potentially fall and block a door or other means of escape should also be relocated.

5. Know How To Shut Off Water, Gas and Electricity

The movement from the earthquake can damage or rupture the piping and wiring in your home. Knowing how to turn these systems off at the source can prevent flooding or fires.

Every member of your household who is capable of doing so should know how to turn these utilities off.

You can generally find your main gas shut-off valve on the pipe that runs into your gas meter, on the outside of your house. If you’re having trouble locating it, contact your gas company.

To turn off your gas, you’ll need a wrench. It’s a good idea to store the wrench near the meter, so you don’t have to worry about finding one during an emergency. When the valve is parallel to the pipe, the gas is running. To turn it off, use the wrench to turn the valve perpendicular to the pipe.

Turning off your electricity and water is easier.

Locate your electrical circuit box and turn off each individual breaker before turning off the main circuit breaker.

Your main water shut-off valve is likely located inside your home, and can be shut off by turning it clockwise (this can generally be done with bare hands – no tools required).

6. Repair And Retrofit

Repair any existing structural issues your home has now so that an earthquake doesn’t exacerbate them and potentially create dangerous conditions.

Find out how prepared the structure of your home is for an earthquake. If you need to, enlist the help of a seismic contractor who’s trained in retrofitting buildings in earthquake-prone areas. Retrofitting often involves bolting the house structure to its foundation or bracing the cripple walls.

Though it can be costly, having a professional retrofit your home to better withstand shaking can pay off in the long run. Your state or town may also offer incentives for doing so. In California, for example, the California Earthquake Authority offers grants for those who qualify and an insurance premium discount.

Though it won’t completely prevent damage, retrofitting will make your home safer to be in during and after an earthquake and make repairing the home more possible after the fact.

If you rent your home or live in a shared building like a condo, talk to your landlord or condo association about the building’s status.

7. Make Multiple Earthquake Kits

Earthquakes can happen at any time, day or night. Having a perfectly prepared earthquake kit doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get to it when the earthquake hits. That’s why you should have emergency supplies in a few different places, including your home, your car and your workplace.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to keep a few essentials beneath your bed – things you might need if an earthquake happened while you were sleeping. This includes things like a flashlight, some sturdy, closed-toe shoes and a whistle to alert rescuers if you were to get trapped. If possible, keep these items in a container you can tie or attach to the bed, so it won’t be scattered by the shaking.

Scroll down to check out our list on how to build a well-stocked earthquake kit.

8. Prepare Financially

After the emergency is over, you’ll be tasked with the challenge of rebuilding your life. This will be a lot easier if your important personal and financial documents weren’t destroyed.

Keep physical copies of these documents in a fireproof and waterproof safe, or store them electronically in the cloud.

Examples of documents you should have saved include copies of household members’ IDs, birth certificates, social security cards, bank account information, insurance policy documents and information on how to access important accounts.

Ready.gov has a thorough guide on how to build an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit.

9. Run Drills

Run through your safety plan with all the members of your household periodically to ensure that everyone knows what to do. Go over basic earthquake safety (“drop, cover and hold on,” which we’ll talk about in a minute) and make sure everyone knows where emergency supplies are located.

During And After An Earthquake

You’ve done all the necessary prep work. What happens during the earthquake? Here’s what the top disaster safety officials say to do during and after the shaking.

During The Earthquake

If you take nothing else away from this article, let this be the one thing you remember: Drop, cover and hold on.

This is the official guidance for how to best protect yourself during an earthquake. It works like this:

  • Drop: If you’re standing when the earthquake first hits, the first thing to do is drop to your hands and knees. If you use a walker with a seat or a wheelchair, lock your wheels and bend forward in your seat, covering your head and neck. Whether you drop or remain seated, bending over protects your vital organs.

  • Cover: Use an arm to cover your head and neck and, if you can, crawl underneath something sturdy, such as a table or desk, for shelter. Depending on the severity of the earthquake, objects that aren’t secured in place will likely fall or fly through the air. When you put some form of shelter over your body, you can minimize the risk of injury and death. If you don’t have a table or desk nearby, crawl to an interior wall (away from windows and heavy, unsecured objects) if it’s safe to do so.

  • Hold on: If you’re underneath a table or desk, hold onto it until the shaking stops, remaining bent over on the ground and protecting your head with your arm if possible. If the shelter moves around due to the shaking, move with it. If you weren’t able to take shelter, keep your arms over your head with your hands protecting the back of your neck.

When you feel an earthquake, don’t run; you could break your leg or be thrown to the ground and seriously injure yourself. Don’t try to go outside, but if you’re already outside, move to an open space away from buildings and anything else that could hurt you, such as power lines. Building exteriors are especially dangerous during earthquakes, as this is where dangerous debris is likely to fall from.

If you’re in bed, stay there and cover your head with a pillow.

Though commonly cited as a way to keep yourself safe during an earthquake, do not take cover in a doorway. California earthquake experts say this myth comes from a time when adobe was the material of choice for homes. When an earthquake hit, the adobe home would collapse completely, leaving behind nothing but the doorframe.

In modern homes, doorframes aren’t any sturdier than the rest of the house, and complete and immediate building collapse is rare. You’re more likely to be hurt by falling objects, which is why the best course of action is to find shelter and keep your head and neck covered.

If you’re driving when an earthquake hits, pull over in an area away from overpasses, bridges and power lines if you can and set your parking brake.

The Aftermath

When the shaking stops, take stock of the situation. Do you or does anyone with you have injuries that require immediate attention? Are there fires that need to be put out or other emergencies that need to be attended to?

If you’re in a building that’s seriously damaged, carefully and quickly get yourself and others out. If you’re in a tsunami zone, evacuate to higher ground.

If you’re trapped under debris and can’t get out, cover your mouth with a piece of cloth and avoid moving around and kicking up dust. If you have a cellphone with you, text people to tell them where you are and that you’re trapped. You want to avoid inhaling toxins and dust, so don’t shout; instead, tap or knock on a hard surface to alert rescuers of your location.

If you smell or hear a gas leak or suspect a gas pipe has been broken, don’t do anything that could spark a fire, such as turning on a light switch. Open a window and turn off the main valve if you can do so safely. However, only turn off the main gas valve if you have to, as you won’t be able to restore service without a professional, and this could take a while.

Don’t tie up phone lines if you can help it. Remember, text messaging is most likely going to be the most reliable form of communication. Reserve calling for emergencies.

Keep your radio on to listen for updates from government officials.

Pay attention to water advisories. Earthquakes can cause municipal water pipes to crack, contaminating the water supply. Local officials may advise you to boil or otherwise disinfect your water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a printable guide that shows you how to do this.

Stay diligent even after the earthquake has passed. Aftershocks, smaller earthquakes that follow a larger earthquake (the mainshock), can happen for weeks, months or even years after an earthquake. There’s also a small chance that the earthquake you experienced was a foreshock to a larger mainshock.

The After-Aftermath

Once the danger subsides, how do you get your life back together?

Keep up with local government announcements on available aid, including shelter, food and financial assistance.

Contact your insurance company to begin the claims process. Keep in contact with any entities you have loans with or make regular payments to.

Your home may be the best place for you to stay if it’s only suffered minor damage. However, if it’s seriously damaged and unsafe to remain, you may need to evacuate to a local shelter.

If a disaster declaration is made, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will offer assistance, including housing grants for temporary shelter, home repairs and funds to help pay for medical expenses, among other services.

Disasters can have a huge emotional toll on those who experience them. Be sure to take care of yourself and your loved ones during this time. Don’t be afraid to talk through your feelings or seek counseling.

The Perfect Kit To Prepare For An Earthquake

Every person’s “perfect” earthquake kit is going to be a little different, depending on their individual needs. This list is just starting point with all the essentials and some other items you might need – be sure to add anything else you think your family will need in an emergency situation.

  • Water (a minimum 3 days’ supply; one gallon of water per person per day)
  • Food (a minimum 3 days’ supply, with an emphasis on nonperishables with low salt content and high liquid content)
  • List of emergency contacts
  • Manual can opener
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Prescription medications and eyeglasses or contacts
  • Whistle
  • Battery-powered radio and batteries
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Toolkit
  • Toilet paper and menstrual supplies
  • Warm clothes
  • Sleeping bags or blankets
  • Important personal and financial documents
  • Car phone charger or backup phone batteries
  • Moist towelettes
  • Pet food, water and other pet supplies
  • Paper or plastic eating utensils
  • Cash
  • Plastic sheeting and tape (for shelter)

These suggestions come from FEMA’s Earthquake Safety Checklist, Ready.gov, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Bottom Line

Earthquakes and other natural disasters are scary because they take away much of the control we like to think we have over our lives. Being prepared and knowing how to take care of yourself during and after an earthquake can help you take some of that control back.

In order to provide you with the best guidance on how to prepare your family and your home for an earthquake, most of the information we shared in this article comes from the country’s top authorities on earthquakes and disaster preparation and response, including USGS, FEMA, the CDC, Ready.gov and the EPA.

Get the right home loan for you.

Molly Grace

The Rocket Homes blog is here to bring you all you need to know about buying, selling and making the most of your home. Whether you’re thinking about becoming a homeowner, selling your current home or looking to keep your place in tip-top shape, our writers and freelancers bring their experience and expertise to meet you right where you are.