Surviving An Earthquake

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Recently, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused massive damage and loss of life in parts of Turkey and Syria. Over 22,000 deaths are confirmed so far, with more than 60,000 injured. This makes the earthquake worse than the  one that caused so much damage in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. In 2010, more than 222,000 died in the Haitian earthquake. Indeed, earthquakes are relatively common natural disasters in certain parts of the world.

We haven’t had anything on that level in the United States, but you still should know, family medic, what to do in the case of one. I know, and you know, that hurricanes are more significant for residents of the Gulf or East Coasts of the United States, but the West Coast and even some areas of the Midwest should be concerned about the possible risk of an earthquake event.

Some of our most populated areas are actually near “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.  Each increase of 1 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). Most Quakes, however, are less than 2.0 on the Richter scale, and occur every day in one place or another. These are unlikely to be noticed by the average person.

A newer measurement, the Moment Magnitude scale, calculates each point of magnitude as releasing more than 30 times the energy of the previous one. It is considered more accurate than the Richter scale, especially for higher magnitude earthquakes. So a moment magnitude 7 quake is 30 times as powerful as a magnitude 6.

If the energy is released offshore, a “tsunami” or tidal wave may be generated.  In Fukushima, Japan, a very powerful offshore earthquake (8.9 magnitude) and tsunami wreaked havoc in 2011, causing major damage, loss of life, and meltdowns in local nuclear reactors.


Earthquakes, if they’re major, are especially dangerous due to their unpredictability. There’s usually little notice given beforehand. That means you should make sure each member of your family knows what to do no matter where they are when an earthquake occurs.  That’s important because, unless it happens in the dead of night, it’s unlikely you will all be in the house together. Planning ahead will give you the best chance of gathering your family together and making the best of a bad situation.

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

  • Non-perishable food and water
  • Power sources
  • Alternative shelters
  • Medical items (especially those that handle trauma/open wounds)
  • Clothing appropriate to the weather
  • Fire extinguishers
  • A Means of communication
  • Money (don’t count on credit or debit cards if the power’s down)
  • Individual tools like an adjustable wrench to turn off gas or water

Figure out where you’ll meet in the event of tremors.  What’s the school system’s plan for earthquakes? Would you be able to find  your kids? If you’re in an earthquake zone, you should be sure that they can easily reach you and have a plan of action.

It would be appropriate to always have a “get-home” bag put together at work or in the car.  Some food, liquids, and a pair of sturdy, comfortable shoes are useful items to have available, in case you have to make it home by foot due to road damage.

At home, it’s especially important to know where your gas, electric, and water main shutoffs are.  Make sure that everyone has an idea of 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 or at all.

Look around your house for fixtures like chandeliers and bookcases that might not be stable enough to withstand an earthquake.  Flat screen TVs, especially large ones, could easily be toppled by moderate tremors.  Be sure to check out kitchen and pantry shelves, and the stability of anything that might be hanging over the headboard of your bed, like a work of art.


What should you do when the tremors start?  If you’re indoors, get under a table, desk, or something else solid and hold on. 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. This goes against what your gut might tell you, but 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 might 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.


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.

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. This used to be cutting edge advice, but now everyone texts. If you have old folks who aren’t savvy about texting, take a moment to teach them. It’s not rocket science.

Joe Alton MD

Joe Alton MD

Learn more about surviving an earthquake and dealing with its medical consequences, plus 200 other medical topics in the award-winning 4th Edition of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide For When Help Is Not On The Way, available in black and white on Amazon and in color or spiral-bound versions at Plus, get prepared with quality kits from our entire line. You’ll be glad you did.

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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