Could You Survive An Earthquake?

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A 6.2 magnitude earthquake has struck central Italy, killing at least 250 and injuring hundreds more throughout the region.  More than 200 aftershocks have been recorded by seismologists since the major quake hit August 23, 2016 at 3:36 a.m. local time.

The area, part of the Apennine mountain range that forms the central “spine” of Italy, is no stranger to seismic activity, with deadly quakes most recently in 2009 and 2012. This time, the tremors occurred only 65 miles Northeast of Rome.

The United States, especially (but not exclusively) the West Coast, is also susceptible to natural disasters like earthquakes. The West Coast and some areas of the Midwest are located over what we call “fault lines”.  A fault is a fracture in a volume of base rock. Movement of the earth releases energy, which then causes major surface disruptions. This movement is sometimes called a “seismic wave”.

The strength of an earthquake has been historically measured using the Richter scale.  This measurement (from 0-10 or, theoretically, more) identifies the magnitude of tremors at a certain location.  Quakes less than 2.0 on the Richter scale are common occurrences unlikely to be noticed by the average person. Each increase of 1.0 magnitude, however, increases the strength by a factor of 10. The highest-intensity earthquake ever recorded was The Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960 (9.5 on the Richter scale).

Although most people are aware of the Richter Scale, a newer measurement, the Moment Magnitude scale, is thought to be more accurate for higher intensity quakes. The Moment Magnitude scale calculates each point of magnitude as releasing more than 30 times the energy of the previous one.

If the fault lines shift offshore, a “tsunami” or tidal wave may be generated.  In Fukushima, the earthquake (8.9 magnitude) spawned a large tsunami which caused major damage, loss of life, and meltdowns in local nuclear reactors. Tsunami warning were issued for both the Japanese and Ecuadorian earthquakes reported this week. 


A major earthquake is especially dangerous due to its unpredictability. Although researchers are working to find ways to determine when a quake will hit, there is usually little warning. This fact makes having a plan before an earthquake hits a major factor in your chances of survival.

This plan of action has to be shared with each family member, even the children. Unless the earthquake happens in the dead of night, it’s unlikely you will all be in the house together. You might be at work and the kids at school, so making everyone aware of what to do will give you the best chance of gathering your family and surviving the earthquake together.

To be prepared, you’ll need, at the very least, the following supplies:

  • Food and water
  • Power sources
  • Alternative shelters
  • Medical supplies
  • Clothing appropriate to the weather
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Means of communication
  • Money (don’t count on credit or debit cards if the power’s down)
  • An adjustable wrench to turn off gas or water
  • Copies of important documents, including insurance policies

In areas at risk for earthquakes, the school system and municipal authorities usually have formulated a disaster plan. They may even have designated a quake-proof shelter. If possible, this may be the best place to go. Make certain to inquire about your town’s precautions in case of a seismic event.

Besides the general supplies listed above, it would be wise to put together a separate “get-home” bag to keep at work or in the car.  Some food, liquids, and a pair of sturdy, comfortable shoes are useful items to have in this kit.

Home Earthquake Safety

In the home, it’s important to know where your gas, electric, and water main shutoffs are.  Make sure that everyone of age knows how to turn them off if there is a leak or electrical short.  Know where the nearest medical facility is, but be aware that you may be on your own; medical responders are going to be overwhelmed and may not get to you quickly.

Look around your house for fixtures like chandeliers and bookcases that might not be stable enough to withstand an earthquake. Placing heavier objects on bottom shelves will make cabinets more stable.

Flat screen TVs, especially large ones, could easily topple.  Be sure to check out kitchen and pantry shelves, and the stability of anything hanging over the headboard of your bed.

When The Earthquake Hits

What should you do when the tremors start?  If you’re indoors, get under a table, desk, or something else solid and hold on. This strategy is called “Drop, Cover, Hold”. Dropping to your knees will prevent a fall from causing injuries. Cover may protect you from falling objects. Hold on tight. If cover isn’t available, stand against the corner of an inside wall.

While the building is shaking, don’t try to run out, especially if you’re on an upper floor; you could easily fall down stairs or get hit by falling debris.  Don’t try to use elevators. You should stay clear of windows, shelves, and kitchen areas.

It’s often taught that you should stand in the doorway because of the frame’s sturdiness. It turns out, however, that in modern homes, doorways aren’t much more solid than any other part of the structure. Even if sturdy, you could still get hit by falling objects.

Once the initial tremors are over, go outside.  Once there, stay as far out in the open as possible, away from power lines, chimneys, and anything else that could fall on top of you.

You could, possibly, be in your automobile when the earthquake hits.  Get out of traffic as quickly as possible; other drivers are likely to be less level-headed than you are. Don’t stop your car under bridges, trees, overpasses, power lines, or light posts. They’re likely to topple in a major quake. Stay in your vehicle while the tremors are active.

After The Earthquake

Even after the tremors stop, there are still dangers. One issue to be concerned about is gas leaks; make sure you don’t use your camp stoves, lighters, or even matches until you’re certain all is clear.  Even a match could ignite a spark that could lead to an explosion.  If you turned the gas off, you might consider letting the utility company turn it back on.

Buildings that have structural damage may be unstable or have loose concrete which could rain down on the unsuspecting. Falling stone from damaged buildings killed rescuers in the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Towers collapse.

Don’t count on telephone service after a natural disaster.  Telephone companies only have enough lines to deal with 20% of total call volume at any one time.  It’s likely all lines will be occupied.  Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to apply to texts; you’ll have a better to chance to communicate by texting than by voice due to the wavelength used.

That cell phone will come in handy if you’re trapped under rubble after an earthquake. Even if voice calls won’t work, texts might. Text to loved ones, social media, anyone that can let people know you’re trapped. If you live in quake country, you might consider a whistle on your keychain. It’ll last longer than your voice will as a signal for help. Don’t give up; people can live several days without water, and much longer without food. With any luck, rescuers will find you.

Joe Alton, MD

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