What to Do When an Earthquake Hits

Earthquake ahead sign.
credit: Randy Jones Insurance Services
You won't see a warning sign before an earthquake hits.

An earthquake doesn't arrive completely without warning. Animals can detect high-frequency P-waves several minutes before the arrival of the more destructive S-waves— although this skill is a subject of debate among scientists. But unlike animals, most humans are caught totally by surprise and have little time to react before things get dangerous.

A large earthquake is traumatic for anyone who experiences it. Structures begin cracking and bending, things fly around and fall, and glass breaks. Power lines may crackle and lights flicker on and off. Perhaps the most disorienting aspect of a large tremblor is the sudden loss of confidence in the stability of the solid ground, which everyone takes for granted.

It's easy to panic during such an experience, but that's exactly what you shouldn't do, according to just about every earthquake expert. Keeping your cool may be difficult when the ground gives way under your feet, but it's the best way to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. You'll find it easier to do this if you're earthquake-ready, which anyone living in a seismic zone, such as the west coast of North America, should be. Even if you aren't prepared, you can prevent a traumatic situation from becoming tragic by following some simple guidelines.

If You Are Indoors During an Earthquake

Drop! Cover! Hold On!
credit: EfficientGov
Seek shelter to protect yourself from falling objects.

The instinctual urge to flee when an earthquake strikes is understandable, but civil authorities in the United States, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand and other earthquake-prone countries advise you to stay where you are. If you're indoors, the proper response is summarized in the widely circulated "Drop! Cover! Hold On!" meme.

  • Drop! Hunker down on the floor and cover your head and neck with your arms. If you are near a window, bookshelf or similar hazard, crawl as far away from it as you can. Don't forget to check overhead for light fixtures and other objects that could fall on you.
  • Cover! Seek shelter under a table, desk or anything else that can protect you from falling objects. If you can't find suitable shelter, then stay where you are.
  • Hold on! Grasp the leg of a table, sofa, bed or any other heavy piece of furniture and hold onto it to stabilize yourself against the shaking.
In bed during an earthquake.
credit: Stuff
If you're in bed, cover your head with your pillow.

If you sleep for the normal average of 8 hours a day, there's a 33 percent chance you'll be in bed when an earthquake strikes. If so, the safest response is to stay there, curl up as small as you can, and hold your pillow over your head and neck.

Tips

Ignore advice you may see on the internet to lie on the floor next to a sturdy object, such as a bed or sofa. The "triangle of life" theory on which this strategy is based supposes that the bed or sofa will create a triangular safe space when large objects, such as beams, fall from above. This theory has been discredited by researchers in several countries.

Authorities have similarly debunked the myth that standing in a doorway is safe. Doorways in most houses are no safer than any other place, and when you're in a standing position, you expose yourself to the greatest hazard, which is flying and falling objects.

If You Are Outdoors During an Earthquake

Earthquake damage.
credit: Baloncici/iStock/GettyImages
Move away from buildings and watch for falling objects.

When an earthquake strikes and you're outdoors, it's just as important to stay calm. The main hazard is from falling objects, so move as far away from buildings and power lines as possible. If you're near a slope, move away from it to avoid being struck by objects rolling down the hill or being caught in a landslide. Once you're in the open, crouch down and stay where you are until the shaking stops. Do not stand near the edge of a cliff or on a patch of unstable ground that could collapse.

If you're in a vehicle, pull over and stop, then remain inside with the seat belt fastened until the shaking stops. If you're near an overpass, on a bridge or under power lines, it's best to first move your car as far away from these hazards as possible. Power lines may fall during a quake. If any make contact with your car, remain inside until someone comes to help, and avoid touching any metal part of the vehicle, such as the door latch.

After the Shaking Stops

Cracked ground.
credit: Fajrul Islam/Moment/GettyImages
Proceed carefully after an earthquake. Structures and walkways may be hazardous.

Many disasters can potentially happen immediately after a large earthquake. Parts of weakened buildings can collapse several minutes after the shaking stops. In addition, ruptured gas pipes can start fires. This can multiply the misery inflicted by the quake itself several-fold, such as happened in Kobe, Japan in 1995.

After a major tremblor, you're sure to feel disoriented, but it's important to be cautious as you prepare to navigate the altered landscape. Watch for debris, such as broken glass and hazardous fluids, as you proceed.

  • Do not use light switches, especially if you smell gas. Poor connections may create sparks. If you need light, use a flashlight. If you see any small fires, extinguish them immediately using a fire extinguisher, if one is available.
  • Stay out of elevators when in high-rise buildings. Use the stairs.
  • Clean up any caustic or flammable chemicals, such as bleach or gasoline, that may have spilled onto the floor.
  • If the building you are in has been damaged, go outside as soon as it is safe to do so. Stay outside until you get the all-clear from the authorities.
  • Help children, elderly and disabled people, as well as anyone else who requires assistance.

Be mindful that most large earthquakes are accompanied by aftershocks, some of which can be as large as the original quake. If you feel renewed shaking. move away from damaged structures when outside and crouch down in an open space. If you're still indoors, drop down, seek shelter or cover your head and neck with one arm and hold on to a sturdy piece of furniture until the shaking stops.

Electricity and landline telephone lines may not work after a major quake, and cell towers may be down. If you're earthquake-ready, you'll have a manual wind-up radio that you can use to tune into to receive emergency instructions from the local authorities. You'll also have a generator to supply you with emergency power. Make sure you know how to start the generator—if you wait until you need it, it might be too late.


Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.