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Being Earthquake-Ready: Because Every Season Is Earthquake Season

By Michael Rudeen

  • During an earthquake, there are a number of concerns: falling debris, downed power lines, broken glass and the safety of your loved ones and yourself. Earthquakes strike suddenly, but simple preparation can help you ride it out.

    If you are ever caught in an earthquake, there could be many obstacles to dodge. But to keep yourself safe in a quake, it's most critical to avoid one simple four-letter word — fear. By keeping your cool, you can help reduce your risk of injury. Many major earthquakes come without warning, but you can take steps to protect yourself during the quake and maintain your safety after it has passed.

    Before the Quake Hits
    Despite numerous studies attempting to find a way to predict earthquakes, the results have been imprecise, says Natasha Ruppert, a seismologist and seismic network manager at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

    The first thing you should do to improve your chances in an earthquake is to determine the likelihood of earthquake activity in your area. Information to determine your risk is available from the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) and local emergency services agencies, says Ruppert. If you learn you're in an earthquake-prone locale, make sure you've got information to help you prepare. You can learn ways to reduce your chances of injury and destruction to your home, and educate yourself about possible evacuation scenarios.

    It might be advisable, for example, to brace your water heater or heating and cooling units to help keep them from toppling, says Ruppert. And in some states, like California, state law requires it. Materials such as plumber's tape or electrical metal tubing are commonly used for bracing, according to the California Seismic Safety Commission.

    To prepare for an earthquake or the event of another catastrophe, create a household safety kit. Maintaining supplies of food and water is wise, says Dr. John Vidale, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. A general rule of thumb for clean drinking water requirements is one gallon per person per day. Stock nonperishable foods that will last your family at least three days — and, choose nutritious foods that do not require heat to eat safely, like energy bars. Also, Ruppert says that stocking up on the following essential items can help keep you safe: emergency medical supplies, such as a first aid kit; a seven-day supply of medications; household essentials, including batteries, a flashlight and a multipurpose tool; and cash.

    The NEIC even offers a feature called Earthquake Notification Service, or ENS, which notifies you by text message or email of earthquake activity, according to parameters you establish.
    Additionally, you can download smartphone apps, such as the Earthquake Notification App offered by the American Red Cross. These provide information on earthquakes after they occur, including how strong the quake was and where it was centered, to give you an idea of the chance of substantial aftershocks in your location.

    When It Hits
    If you're inside and feel the ground shaking, stay inside. Duck down and crawl under a table or desk for protection from falling objects. Remain in this position until the quake stops. Then follow, if possible, a prepared evacuation plan. If in doubt, head to an open space such as a field, where buildings, trees, highway overpasses and falling debris won't drop on you, says Paul Caruso, a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey at the NEIC in Golden, Colo. A big aftershock can bring down a building or other structure weakened by the original quake, Caruso says. You can find more information about what to do during and after an earthquake here.

    And don't follow the piece of common advice given for weathering a tornado, which is to head for the basement. "That's the last place you want to be in an earthquake," Caruso adds. Running down shaking stairs and putting yourself below even more potentially dangerous debris isn't wise.

    If you're driving when the quake strikes, pull over to the side of the road in the most open area you can find — not under a bridge or highway overpass or near a tall building. "And stay in the car," says Vidale. "The roof of the car is like a good, strong table."

    Most of the advice for protecting yourself in your home is also true in an office building — and remember never to take the elevator on your way out.