Earthquake Survival

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Some significant seismic activity has been reported this week, especially in the zone bordering the rim of the Pacific Ocean (sometimes called the “Ring of Fire”). It’s important to have a plan for earthquake survival so that your family will remain safe in what can be a major disaster.

Recent Earthquake Events


First, the news: 2 major earthquakes have hit Southern Japan, with hundreds of aftershocks and perhaps more on the way. Soon after, an even stronger quake struck Ecuador on the West Coast of South America.

Troops have been called in to dig out almost 100 people buried in rubble after a magnitude 6.2 quake devastated the densely populated island of Kyushu.  9 people were killed and 1000 injured in the earthquake. Just over a day later, a second, more powerful 7.0 quake hit that killed 30 people and injured hundreds more. Some large buildings toppled and a large landslide buried others.

At the same time, Japanese media reported that Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in the country and another part of the “Ring of Fire”. No damage reported, as of yet, from that event.

Japan is no stranger to seismic events. In 2011, we reported extensively on the Fukushima earthquake and tidal wave, which killed 20,000 and caused nuclear meltdowns that have rendered nearby areas uninhabitable to this day.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the “Ring of Fire”: In Ecuador, The strongest earthquake in many years destroyed buildings and rendered roads unpassable along its Pacific coast. Officials report at least 77 killed and hundreds injured. Damage could be observed for hundreds of miles in various major cities as dozens of aftershocks followed.

The earthquake, measured at a magnitude of 7.8, was centered in less-populated areas than the Japanese quakes, but the infrastructure is not as strong. Numerous landslides are causing difficulties for rescue personnel trying to reach the affected communities.

Earthquakes And The United States


The United States, especially but not exclusively the West Coast, is also susceptible to natural disasters like earthquakes. Hurricanes are, of course, more likely threats to residents of the Gulf or East Coasts of the United States, but the West Coast and even some areas of the Midwest are located over what we call “fault lines”.  A fault is a fracture in a volume of base rock. This is an area where earth movement releases energy that can cause 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 more) identifies the magnitude of tremors at a certain location.  Quakes less than 2.0 on the Richter scale may occur every day, but are unlikely to be noticed by the average person. Each increase of 1.0 magnitude increases the strength by a factor of 10. The highest registered earthquake 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 perhaps more accurate. The Moment Magnitude scale calculates each point of magnitude as releasing more than 30 times the energy of the previous one. For higher level quakes, it’s more commonly used.

If the fault lines shift offshore, a “tsunami” or tidal wave may be generated.  In Fukushima, the earthquake (8.9 magnitude) spawned a major 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 notice. This fact makes having a plan before an earthquake occurs 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 might be 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

In areas at risk for earthquakes, the school system and municipal authorities have probably formulated a disaster plan. They may have designated a quake-proof shelter; if so, this may be the best place to go. Make certain to inquire about your town’s earthquake measures.

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 is 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 object on bottom shelves and make shelves 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”. If cover isn’t available, stand against an inside wall.  Don’t try to use elevators. You should stay clear of windows, shelves, and kitchen areas.

While the building is shaking, don’t try to run out; you could easily fall down stairs or get hit by falling debris.  We had always thought you should stand in the doorway because of the frame’s sturdiness, but it turns out that, in modern homes, doorways aren’t any more solid than any other part of the structure.

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.  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 Twin 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.

Joe Alton, MD


Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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