How to Survive an Earthquake


In 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there was a 62 percent chance that a magnitude of 6.7 or worse earthquake would strike the San Francisco region by 2032. See more pictures of natural disasters.
In 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there was a 62 percent chance that a magnitude of 6.7 or worse earthquake would strike the San Francisco region by 2032. See more pictures of natural disasters.
Connie Coleman/Getty Images

Whether you live in an earthquake-prone region like California or Japan or in calmer lands, the idea of everything around you shaking uncontrollably -- and potentially catastrophically -- can be terrifying.

There's a particular sense of helplessness that can accompany earthquakes, especially because there is no established scientific method of predicting them. With that in mind, preparation is the best defense.

If you reside in a place like California's Bay Area, where there are eight or more faults that could produce a serious earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or worse, knowing how best to weather an earthquake is as essential as a Floridian's knowing what to do when a hurricane approaches [source: USGS].

With that in mind, we'll take a look at what to do before, during and after an earthquake in this article. From supplies to retrofitting to emergency communication, we'll cover it all. We'll also see whether duck and cover is indeed the best method and why Doug Copp's "Triangle of Life" technique has attracted so much controversy.

First, let's see how to secure your home.

Earthquake Survival: Securing the Home

School children participate in a disaster drill in 2004 in Japan. The drills, involving some 2 million people, are held every Sept. 1 on the anniversary of the massive 1923 earthquake that killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
School children participate in a disaster drill in 2004 in Japan. The drills, involving some 2 million people, are held every Sept. 1 on the anniversary of the massive 1923 earthquake that killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

It's impossible for a building to be considered "earthquake proof." Earthquakes vary in type, location and magnitude, and even some of the best retrofitting may not stand up to an overwhelmingly powerful earthquake (say, an 8.5). Even so, you can take measures to secure a building before an earthquake and to prevent potentially dangerous complications afterward. It starts with making sure your house doesn't move from its foundation during the earthquake's resulting ground motion.

A seismic retrofit generally involves bolting the house to the foundation -- if it's not already. Plywood is used to brace the walls, which in turn are attached to structural supports known as floor framing. The foundation itself might need some work. For example, an expert might recommend that an old brick foundation be replaced or "capped" with concrete [source: Burnett]. These efforts, when done properly, can help to shift the earthquake's force. Instead of damaging the structure of the house or knocking it off its foundation, the foundation itself absorbs the brunt of the shaking.

Usually the actual shaking of the quake tends to do the most damage to buildings. The distance from the epicenter and the magnitude determine how much damage might be caused, but the type of soil and construction of the house are important as well. A weak foundation on top of soft, sandy soil poses more hazards than a firm foundation on solid bedrock. In addition to shaking, earthquakes may also bring with them fire, water leaks and other aftereffects.

Retrofitting can costs tens of thousands of dollars, though it may be much less. Some contractors specialize in retrofitting, but a structural engineer may be needed.

Besides securing the foundation and structure, individual items should also be considered. Large pieces of furniture, particularly those that are taller than they are wide, should be bolted to the wall. Store breakable items on low shelves or in cabinets than can be secured shut. Be careful of placing pictures or other items that could fall over beds. Finally, make sure you have a working fire extinguisher.

During the retrofitting process, it's a good time to identify places that will be safe during a quake, though we'll discuss this topic more later. Also keep in mind that emergency instructions (such as for shutting off gas) should be handy, and make sure you have a pair of good shoes, a flashlight and warm clothing readily accessible.

Earthquake Supplies

Fires are one of the most common dangers after an earthquake, so that's why it's important to shut off the gas and to keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
Fires are one of the most common dangers after an earthquake, so that's why it's important to shut off the gas and to keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
© iStockphoto/Walkman1

A supply of food and water is essential for anyone in earthquake country. Keep water stored in plastic bottles. A three-day supply, made up of a daily ration of two quarts (1.9 liters) of drinking and two quarts for food and sanitation, should be considered a minimum guideline. Experts recommend changing this water supply every six months [source: San Francisco Chronicle].

As for food, keep on hand canned goods from various food groups (and a can opener). These provisions should be ready to eat or require minimal or no preparation. Make sure you have a stash of any required special foods, especially for family members who are sick or have particular dietary needs. Focus on nutritious items loaded with good calories, like nuts, peanut butter, crackers and granola. Avoid provisions that require anything more than a minimum amount of hot water, such as rice or pasta. Better to stick with instant coffee, tea or oatmeal. Your food supply should be replaced or restocked once a year. It can also be helpful to keep a stock of vitamins on hand.

A first-aid kit is very important to have in case anyone suffers an injury. Many earthquake-related injuries are minor ones, such as stepping on broken glass or twisting an ankle. You can buy a good premade first-aid kit or make your own; it should be filled with disinfectants, gauze, gloves, bandages, a thermometer and other such items.

You should also have a backup supply of any prescriptions, as well as a variety of nonprescription drugs, such as pain relievers, antacids and medications for abdominal/intestinal problems. Similarly, good sanitation is key, both for personal comfort and preventing disease. Make sure you have a cache of toilet paper, soaps, hand sanitizers, garbage bags, bleach and disinfectants.

We've taken care of nutrition, hydration and health, but clothes, tools and personal documents are also essential. A good sweatshirt and sturdy shoes will not only keep you warm if the heat doesn't work; they will also protect you from exposed nails, shards of glass or other hazards. If you require glasses, make sure they're near your bed in case you're there when a quake strikes, and keep a backup pair in your kit.

Your supplies should also include blankets, flashlights (with fresh batteries), tape, a wrench or other tool to turn off the gas, cash, a fire extinguisher and a battery- or hand-operated radio. Documents like passports, identification, family records, bank account information, wills and other essential items should be stored in a safe or somewhere else secure.

What to Do During an Earthquake

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross both recommend using the duck and cover technique. With duck and cover, you should, if possible, get under a table or other solid piece of furniture and hold on until the shaking ceases. Other common tips include staying against an inside wall and not going near windows or outside until the shaking stops. As with a fire, elevators should be avoided.

Doorways can be secure areas, but not always. If a doorway is the closest safe option and you know that it's a structurally sound, load-bearing doorway, then go ahead and seek shelter under it. In any case, once you get to a safe place (which we hope is quickly), stay there, hold on tight and don't move until the shaking stops.

Earthquake advice changes depending on where you are when the disaster strikes. If you're in bed, it might be best to stay there and use a pillow to protect your head and neck. Of course, if you haven't secured objects that could fall on your bed, then that's not a safe area.

If you're driving and it's possible to continue moving, drive slowly to a safe place, but don't stop on or under overpasses, bridges or other potentially unstable areas. Turn off the car, use its emergency flasher lights and keep the parking break engaged. As you would if you were outside your car, keep an eye out for objects that might fall, like power lines or trees.

If you're outside during an earthquake, it's best not to move too much. You should avoid buildings and objects or structures that could fall. Again, power lines are a concern, but so are a building's outside walls, which may not be as strong as interior walls. Avoid these exterior walls, as they can collapse or produce falling debris or flying glass.

Now that you've made it through the main event, let's find out what to do afterward.

What to Do After an Earthquake

A resident sleeps outdoors at the Tianfu Square to avoid earthquke aftershocks on May 22, 2008, in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China. More than 51,000 people have been confirmed killed in the May earthquake.
A resident sleeps outdoors at the Tianfu Square to avoid earthquke aftershocks on May 22, 2008, in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China. More than 51,000 people have been confirmed killed in the May earthquake.
China Photos/Getty Images

Keep in mind that aftershocks -- smaller tremors -- can occur for months after the initial earthquake, though the strongest ones will likely occur in the first few hours or days. Aftershocks can cause additional damage or lead unstable structures to collapse. Unsecured items could fall off shelves, which is also a concern when opening cabinets or closets. If you feel like the structure you're in may not be structurally sound, leave and find a safe space to stay until an expert can confirm the building's integrity.

After an earthquake, it's essential to be wary of a natural gas leak. Don't light matches or use a lighter that could cause gas in the air to explode. If you smell or hear gas (often identified by a hissing noise), then open windows and leave the house or building as soon as possible. Turn off the gas valve, and if you think there may be a leak, contact the gas company. Some people also buy a product that automatically shuts off the gas in the event of an earthquake. You'll need an experienced technician to reopen the valve and restore the flow of gas.

Besides checking for gas leaks, look around for water leaks and any spilled liquids that may be flammable or toxic. Make sure that there is no damage to water lines or a home's chimney, which could be particularly vulnerable in the event of an earthquake.

For those trapped in a building or under rubble, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises against moving too much or lighting a match [source: FEMA]. Also, it's better to tap on something, such as a pipe, to signal rescuers rather than shouting. If you shout, you could inhale potentially deadly or debilitating dust. Similarly, cover your mouth to protect the lungs against dirt, dust and other airborne particles.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, it's important to get updates from local authorities, whether over the radio or television (if electricity is available in the area). These updates should contain information about which municipal services are available, which areas to avoid and how to call for help. And if you live in a tsunami zone, the authorities may communicate any necessary alerts.

The Triangle of Life Myth

Some of Doug Copp's supposed expertise comes from responding to an earthquake in Turkey, which has vastly different (and less rigorous) building codes than those of the United States.
Some of Doug Copp's supposed expertise comes from responding to an earthquake in Turkey, which has vastly different (and less rigorous) building codes than those of the United States.
Ami Vitale/Getty Images

Doug Copp has become famous in some circles for his Triangle of Life earthquake-survival method. You may have received a chain e-mail containing an essay from him in which he trumpets his credentials and claims that the "duck and cover" method almost always leads to unnecessary deaths. He also challenges the conventional wisdom that doorways are dangerous.

According to Copp's method, objects like sofas, beds, desks and other furniture get crushed or become compressed when a building or roof collapses. But next to them is a "void" (often in a triangular shape) that he claims is a safe place in which to seek cover, ideally in the fetal position. He even says that large stacks of paper produce voids.

Unfortunately, while Copp's survival tips are found all over the Internet, a lot of controversy goes along with them. Snopes.com, the popular site for debunking rumors and urban legends, has found several problems with Copp's advice [source: Snopes]. The site points out that many of Copp's claims have been debunked on scientific grounds or shown to be inaccurate because they come from experiences in other countries with different building codes. He has also been shown to have distorted and selectively used evidence to prove his points [source: Petal].

The U.S. Department of Justice launched a fraud investigation because Copp received $649,000 from the 9/11 victims fund yet apparently did little or no rescue work and did not suffer the serious injuries he claimed. In addition, the chief of special operations for the New York Fire Department called Copp "a bald-faced liar" [source: Linthicum].

Besides these issues, an in-depth investigation by an Albuquerque newspaper (where Copp used to live) uncovered several other incidents in which Copp had lied about or fabricated his credentials, including his supposed "body detector" machine, which was, in fact, a readily available, commercially purchased gas detector [source: Linthicum].

Much of Copp's advice seems to be derived either from limited experience or by seeing results -- such as that people survive in voids -- and making general assumptions as to the cause, assumptions that he can't back up with scientific testing. One of his few claims that experts have supported is that it is a good idea to avoid the stairs during an earthquake [source: Petal].

Keep reading for more links you might like on earthquakes and surviving Mother Nature.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "Building Damage from a 7.2 Quake." San Francisco Chronicle.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?m=/c/pictures/2004/05/02/ba_bldgdamage_chart.gif&f=/chronicle/archive/2004/05/02/MNGM26EHUM1.DTL
  • Burnett, Bill. "What S.F. homeowners need to do to be ready for a 7.2 San Andreas shaker." San Francisco Chronicle. May 8, 2004.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/05/08/HOGMT6G4V01.DTL
  • "Earthquake Drills Do's and Don'ts." San Francisco Chronicle.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/earthquakes/archive/quakedrill.dtl
  • "Earthquake Safety Tips." Orange County Red Cross.http://www.oc-redcross.org/show.aspx?mi=2893
  • "Earthquake Valves." So Cal Gas.http://www.socalgas.com/safety/valves.html
  • Linthicum, Leslie. "Feds Investigate 9/11 Injury Claim." Albuquerque Journal. July 18, 2004. http://www.abqjournal.com/terror/199912fire07-18-04.htm
  • Linthicum, Leslie. "Widow Tells of Copp Ordeal." Albuquerque Journal. July 18, 2004. http://www.abqjournal.com/terror/199911fire07-18-04.htm
  • "Make Your Own Preparedness Kit." San Francisco Chronicle.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/earthquakes/archive/ready.dtl
  • Petal, Marla. "The Need for an Evidence-Basis For Earthquake Survival Tips." CERT LA.http://www.cert-la.com/RejoinderToDougCopp.pdf
  • "Triangle of Life." Snopes. Sept. 15, 2004.http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/household/triangle.asp
  • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "Putting Down Your Roots in Earthquake Country." Sept. 2, 2008.http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2005/15/
  • "What to Do After an Earthquake." FEMA. Aug. 22, 2007.http://www.fema.gov/hazard/earthquake/eq_after.shtm
  • "What to Do Before an Earthquake." FEMA. Aug. 22, 2007.http://www.fema.gov/hazard/earthquake/eq_before.shtm
  • "What to Do During an Earthquake." FEMA. Aug. 22, 2007. http://www.fema.gov/hazard/earthquake/eq_during.shtm