Preparing for Earthquakes

[NOTE: This article is adapted from When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival]

Shelly and Phil Rodgers were in their home in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains when the Loma Prieta quake struck. The epicenter was about seven miles from their home. The house shook violently and all of their cupboards opened, throwing every dish, jar, can, bookcase, television, and appliance to the floor. Phil said that the house floors undulated like a snake, appearing to change elevation by more than a foot in different parts of the house as the quake shook through. They were not able to leave the house until the earth stopped moving. Because their car keys and shoes were still inside, Phil had to brave the aftershocks and wade through broken glass to retrieve keys and shoes so they could attempt the drive to town to pick up their kids. He brought a chainsaw with him, which was needed to cut large limbs that had fallen across the road.

On their way to town, they passed the spot where a neighbor’s house should have been. It had been built on tall pylons overlooking the hillside. When the quake struck, it slid off the piers and down the canyon. The two occupants on the first floor managed to crawl out the door moments before it took off, but their son, who was sleeping on the second floor, went for the wildest ride of his life. He miraculously rode through it uninjured, as the first floor disintegrated and the roof split away and to the side. Another friend had a home that lacked proper shear wall nailing and adequate attachment to the foundation. This home slid off the foundation and was a total loss, receiving the “bulldozer remodeling job.”

What to Expect When an Earthquake Strikes

In the aftermath of a major earthquake, the public utilities usually fail, and fires tend to break out due to broken gas mains and lack of water. Most government workers are either injured themselves, or at home caring for family members. If the earthquake is a significant one, with widespread damage and casualties, in all likelihood you will be on your own for several days or more. In this case, medical attention for the wounded and rescue efforts for those trapped under debris will be the first priority, with water second, followed by shelter and food.

The magnitude of an earthquake is usually measured on the Richter scale, or the newer “moment magnitude scale,” which are both roughly equivalent logarithmic scales—meaning that each point of magnitude is a factor ten times as strong as the point below. For example, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake is ten times as strong as one of magnitude 6.0, 100 times as strong as one of magnitude 5.0, and 1,000 times as strong as one of magnitude 4.0. However, the magnitude of the quake tells only part of the story. The extent of the damage will depend on a number of factors in addition to the quake’s magnitude, including the geophysics of the local soil and rock, the age and quality of the local buildings and bridges, and the local seismic building codes (or lack thereof).

The epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake was about 10 miles outside of Santa Cruz, California, and 60 miles from San Francisco. The worst damage was focused in the downtown area of Santa Cruz, which was built on gravelly wet soils next to the San Lorenzo river, 60 miles away in the Marina District in San Francisco, which is built on loose, poorly compacted fill from the 1906 San Francisco quake, and in Oakland where the Cypress Freeway was also built on gravelly soils. At each of these locations, the magnifying effect of gravelly soils combined with liquefaction and older construction methods/ materials to result in catastrophic structural failures and fatalities.

Construction codes, age and type of materials of construction, and soil conditions each have a lot to do with how well a community will fare during an earthquake. Generally speaking, a 5.0 quake will shake things up a bit, throwing items off shelves and possibly breaking fragile appliances like televisions and computers, but will not cause a lot of structural damage unless it strikes old masonry buildings or a third-world location with poor building practices. When a 5.3 magnitude quake shook us out of bed in 1998, it didn’t cause any appreciable damage, but if a quake of that same magnitude had struck downtown Boston, between liquefaction and the old brownstone buildings that Boston is known for, it would probably have caused extensive damage and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Earthquakes in the magnitude range close to 7.0, such as the 6.7 Northridge quake, the 7.0 Port-au-Prince, Haiti, quake, and the 6.8 Kobe, Japan, quake, will be quite frightening and will cause significant destruction ranging from the flattening of Port-au-Prince, that killed an estimated 316,000 and left a million people homeless, to the Northridge quake in Southern California that resulted in 33 deaths, injured an estimated 8,700 people, and caused $20 billion in damages. It is hard to imagine what it would feel like to experience a mega-quake, like the magnitude 9.5 1960 great Chilean earthquake, which was 316 times as strong as the Haiti quake, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami earthquake, which had a magnitude of 9.1 to 9.3!

How to Improve the Earthquake Resistance of Your Home

  • Tie down your water heater with steel strapping bolted securely to wall studs. Seismic water heater straps are available at most hardware or build­ing supply stores. Water heaters are quite heavy and will often topple over during an earthquake, breaking gas and water lines and causing much damage to your home.
  • Do not hang any heavy paintings, or other heavy items, on the wall above your bed
  • If your building is of older construction, inspect the foundation to see if the building frame is bolted into the foundation. If not, a qualified trades­man should perform a seismic retrofit to bolt your home-framing sill plates onto the foundation. If your home was built before the 1950s, and you are concerned about its seismic safety, you will probably need to hire a civil engineer and licensed contractor to make the seismic upgrades.
  • If your building is of older, non-reinforced masonry construction, it will have extremely poor seismic resistance and should be structurally retrofitted and upgraded. In order to properly complete this work, it will require enlist­ing the help of a qualified structural engineer and contractor.
  • Attach heavy bookcases and other tall furniture to wall studs with metal strapping, or specially designed seismic straps. Use Velcro or plastic straps to secure computers in place. Earthquake putty or clay can be used to help secure pots and other ornamental items to shelves.
  • Use child locks on your kitchen cabinets to prevent your dishes from flying out of the cabinets during an earthquake.

Earthquake Prep Checklist

  • Store a sturdy pair of shoes and leather work gloves under each bed. Broken glass often covers the floor during quakes.
  • If you live in a climate subject to freezing temperatures, store extra anti­freeze (preferably the nontoxic RV type) for winterizing your toilet bowls and sink traps.
  • Keep a backup propane, kerosene, or wood heater (and fuel) for emergency space heating, and a portable camping stove for cooking food and boiling water.
  • Store a roll of plastic sheeting, 50 feet minimum (available at hardware or contractor’s supply stores).
  • Keep well-stocked, 72-hour emergency kits in the car (or other outside loca­tion, garden shed, etc), including spare clothing. Make sure you have clothing, tent, sleeping bag, etc so you could survive two weeks outside in the coldest and hottest weather your area might see.
  • Keep spare car keys stored on your car (or other outside location). If your clothes, wallet, and keys disappear in a collapsed house on a cold winter’s day, you will be grateful for a spare key!
  • Keep a permanent shutoff wrench attached to your gas shutoff (available at surplus, hardware, and survival stores).
  • If you are an urban dweller and have no car, or store your car under a large building, you might consider arranging with friends or relatives to store some supplies in their garage, garden shed, and so on.
  • Store off-site backup copies of computer files, family photos, and important papers (marriage license, social security card, bank accounts, stock certifi­cates, immunization records, etc).
  • Stock at least two weeks worth of food in a place that is least prone to being buried in a strong earthquake. Remember, it was nine days before the average Kobe Japan quake victim received government relief in the form of food, water, toiletries, medical supplies and clothing!

The “Three-Second Rule”

In a medium-sized quake (5 to 6 magnitude), you could probably dash outside, but in a large quake of roughly 7.0 or greater, you can figure on approximately three seconds before objects will come flying (including daggers of broken glass), buildings might start collapsing, or in the least you will be knocked off your feet and thrown around. It is during this time that the current expert advice is to “drop, cover, and hold on.” “Drop” gets you off your feet where you are less likely to be knocked over and injured. “Cover” means getting under the cover of a table, desk, etc., where you have some semblance of cover and protection from flying objects (glass, dishes, boards, etc.) and falling debris, or if you can’t get to a protective cover of some sorts, cover your head and neck area with your hands and forearms. “Cover” can also mean hugging an interior wall that will provide structural support that may help support the ceiling and protect your position. “Hold on” means literally just that. Grab on to a wall or solidly anchored object. In a severe earthquake you risk injury from being thrown about, and if you are able to hang on to a relatively stable object this will reduce your risk of injury.

The “Triangle of Life” versus “Drop, Cover, and Hold On”

An e-mail article by Doug Copp under the title of the “Triangle of Life” has been widely circulated on the Internet. Some of the recommendations in this article have been repeated by the media as fact, but have been broadly questioned and refuted by other disaster experts. The gist of the article is that rather than ducking under the cover of an item like a table, the safest place is to drop and roll to a location beside a heavy structural item such as a couch, refrigerator, piano, bed, etc. The philosophy is that when a build­ing “pancakes” (collapses), as is much more common in third-world loca­tions than in Europe and North America, a heavy item that has significant structural strength will be more likely to hold up against collapsing build­ing structures, and that the resulting triangular space alongside the bulky strong item will provide a relatively safe haven where a person might survive; whereas if you crawled underneath a table or desk, it would tend to collapse and squash you like a pancake.

Studies of injuries and deaths caused by earthquakes over the last several decades, as noted above, show that you are much more likely to be injured by falling or flying objects (TVs, lamps, glass, bookcases, etc.) than to die in a collapsed building. “Drop, cover, and hold on” (as described above) will better protect you from these injuries. In traditional buildings, the space under a sturdy table or desk is likely to remain even if the building collapses. Pictures from around the world show tables and desks standing with rubble all around them, and even holding up floors that have collapsed. Experienced rescuers agree that successfully predicting other safe locations in advance is nearly impossible, as where these voids will end up depends on the direction of the shaking along with many other factors.

The exception to the “drop, cover, and hold on” rule is if you are in a country/building lacking engineered construction, and if you are on the ground floor of a non-reinforced earth-based or mud-brick (adobe) building with a heavy ceiling. In that case, you should try to move quickly outside to an open space, and if that is not possible as a last resort attempt to find a “triangle of life.”

There are no hard-and-fast rules that work all the time in all situations. The hope is that being aware of these concepts will be of some assistance when making split-second decisions in a time of crisis.

Immediate Actions to Take and Coping Strategies

Caution: If you smell gas, or the quake was severe, immediately turn off the outside electrical and gas utility supply to your house (gas utility personnel may need to turn it back on).

  • Drop, cover, and hold on as described above.
  • If a gas leak is suspected, do not light an open flame or turn on an electric switch. All common electric switches arc when turned on or off, and may ignite explosive gases. If you suspect a gas leak and need to turn on a flashlight, turn it on or off outside, in the open air. Glow sticks are a safe light source that will not ignite flammable gases.
  • Check for injuries and damage.
  • Your car, when parked outside, can provide safe, secure shelter during periods of aftershocks when you may feel insecure sleeping in an indoor location.
  • After a major earthquake, public water systems are usually incapacitated or contaminated. Think "drinking out of duck ponds" (Yucky)! Most people in America could go for a month without food, but in hot weather, under moderate activity and stressful conditions, people start dying after three days without water, so water is extremely important. Store water, water purification chemicals, and /or purifying filter. Enough to provide 1 gallon per person per day. Retort (foil) pouches can handle freezing in a car trunk, but most other water containers can’t handle freezing without the potential for bursting. Three gallons per person is heavy (24 lb), so I strongly suggest that you include a water filter and water treatment chemicals. I suggest field serviceable pump-type backcountry filters, such as those made by Katadyn or MSR, that are rated to filter out all bacteria and have a carbon core to remove toxic chemicals.

    Also, supplement your filter(s) with purifying iodine crystals (or other chemicals), such as a “Polar Pure” water purification kit or chlorine dioxide purification kits, to kill all viruses and parasites. Pump filters that are rated for virus removal have tiny pore sizes and tend to clog quickly (a clogged filter is worthless). Sports bottle-type purifying water filters are simple, reliable, compact, and inexpensive, but clog easier and won’t purify nearly as many gallons of water as the pump-type filters. A great invention is the "SteriPen", a battery operated UV sterilizer that sterilizes a quart/liter bottle of water in about 15 seconds. You get about 300 uses per battery (hand crank versions available). All bets are off with murky water unless you filter it first before UV sterilization (bugs are shielded from the UV by silt and debris in water). Water is critical to your survival, so I suggest multiple backups in this area by stocking at least one filter, SteriPen, chemicals purification kit, and storage drums. At 4-8 drops to purify a quart of water (wait 30 minutes after treatment for it to take action), a gallon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach is a super cheap way to purify a lot of water, but it will not kill some super tough protozoic parasites, such as Cryptosporidium, which are easily filtered out, boiled to death, or killed with UV or chlorine dioxide sterilization methods.
  • Disease can be a huge problem after a major earthquake. People tend to be stressed out, underfed, underclothed, dehydrated, injured, and often wet or cold. I suggest you stock a colloidal silver generator for making your own "pharmacy in a jar," a homemade colloidal silver solution toxic to all known pathogenic bacteria, but safe for human consumption (more on this in a later article). Also a supply of a variety of antibiotics and pain killers, if you have access to them. Make sure to include an extensive first aid kit with sterile needle and thread, along with Kelley Hemostats, in case you need to stitch up a wound to save someone's life, when emergency medical services are overloaded or non-existent.

~ Mat Stein

About the author: Matthew Stein is a design engineer, green builder, and author of two bestselling books: When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival (Chelsea Green 2011), and When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency (Chelsea Green 2008). Stein is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he majored in Mechanical Engineering. Stein has appeared on numerous radio and television programs and is a repeat guest on Fox News, Coast-to-Coast AM, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Vince Finelli’s USA Prepares, and The Power Hour.  He is an active mountain climber, serves as a guide and instructor for blind skiers, has written several articles on the subject of sustainable living, and is a guest columnist for the Huffington Post. and

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thank you for your article, very helpful.

We are in San Diego southern California and many here don't have earthquake insurance on their house. It's relatively expensive and the deductible is very high typically in the $50K or more so it really covers you if your house is more or less destroyed. 

Do you have a strong opinion about earthquake coverage?




Thanks for the article!
For even more food for thought re earthquake preps, I highly recommend the book "Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country" which has been in print for three decades. It's an excellent read.
Info here:
Available through Amazon.

Although I don't live in a an earthquake zone, I found it interesting that much of the advice would help no matter what the disaster. Preparedness is a state of mind. 

Earth quake is very big problem for all countries. I would like to say that this post is really very interesting for me. I like it. interlocking gym mats sale in uk