A strong 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Southern California recently, cause several dozen incidents of structure fires and ambulance calls. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the tremors originated in a remote desert area, sparing us what might have been a catastrophic disaster. Hundreds of aftershocks are predicted for the next few days, hopefully weaker than the original event.
I last wrote about earthquakes in detail a few years ago when the latest blockbuster movie was “San Andreas”. Seeing computer-generated destruction was pretty impressive, but not as much as seeing it up close and personal in your own neighborhood. South Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire in Tennessee were disasters that I experienced that way.
Although you get warnings for hurricanes, tornadoes, and
even approaching fires, you won’t get much warning of an impending earthquake. A system for predicting imminent quakes is in
place, but even the developers are unsure at what point warnings help to save
lives or, perhaps, cost them due to panic in the general population.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW
How, then, can you protect yourself and your loved ones if
you’re near the epicenter of one? Planning ahead will give you the best chance
of keeping you family intact, even if everything else falls apart.
A good start is having an earthquake plan in place. To get started, check out some of the good advice available at www.fema.gov. Once you’ve formulated a plan that works for you, make sure each member of your family knows what actions to take no matter where they are when an earthquake hits.
The best plans, however, still have weaknesses. Unless an
earthquake occurs in the dead of night, it’s unlikely your family will be
together. You and your significant other may be working at different locations.
Your kids may be at school. Your place of work or your children’s school may
have contingency plans for natural disasters. If so, make sure they match well
with your own.
You may have heard about preparedness folks putting together “bug-out” bags for major disasters. Given that an earthquake may damage roads, consider storing a “get-home” bag in your vehicle. Your supplies should include some energy bars, hydrating fluids, and a pair of sturdy walking shoes.
Supplies are even more important at home. A good earthquake kit should include:
-Water (count on a gallon per person minimum)
-A heat source to cook with and, perhaps, a way to sterilize water (filters, bleach, iodine, and even sunlight can help)
-Money (have some cash, don’t count on credit or debit cards if the power’s down)
-An adjustable wrench or “key” to turn off gas or water if necessary
-Whistle or other noisemaker in case of being trapped under debris
Be acquainted with where your home’s gas, electric and water main shutoffs are. Make sure that family members have an idea of how to turn them off if there is a leak or electrical short. If you have a generator, be sure not to run it where fumes can enter the home.
Some say to have enough food and water for three days. This is a rather arbitrary number. Consider having enough for a week.
Everyone should know where the nearest medical facility is. Having said that, expect emergency medical personnel to be overwhelmed in a major quake. It’s wise to take a CERT or First Responder Course in case you have to treat injuries.
WHAT TO DO BEFORE THE BIG ONE HITS
Considering the unpredictability of quakes, it’s important to do everything possible to minimize damage and prevent injuries before they occur. Some simple planning can make a big difference.
Look around your house for fixtures like chandeliers and shelving
that might not be stable enough to withstand an earthquake. Make sure that
heavy items are on the bottom shelves or on the floor. Bookcases should be
secured to the walls. It’s probably not a great idea to hang that big mirror
over the headboard of your bed, either.
Flat screen TVs, especially big ones, could easily topple if
not anchored. Secure weed killers, pesticides, and other flammable items in
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE BIG ONE HITS
Drop, Cover, Hold On
What should you do when the tremors start? If you’re
indoors, drop and get under a table, desk, or something else solid and hold on.
If nothing’s available, huddle against the inside corner of a room and cover
your head with your hands. You should stay clear of windows, shelves, and
If the building is shaking violently, don’t try to run out; Most injuries seem to occur when falling down stairs or getting hit by debris. Avoid elevators. Don’t be surprised if the electricity goes out, fire alarms ring, and sprinkler systems activate.
You’ve probably heard that standing in a doorway is safest
because of the frame’s sturdiness. It turns out that, in modern homes, many
doorways aren’t more solid than any other part of the structure.
Once the initial tremors are over, get outside. Once there,
stay as far away from power lines, chimneys, and anything else that could fall
over on top of you.
IN THE CAR DURING AN EARTHQUAKE
What if you’re in the car 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 under bridges, trees, overpasses, power lines, or light posts. Stay in your vehicle while the tremors are active.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE EARTHQUAKE
Should you go home? If you’re in a coastal area, there might
be the risk for tsunamis. In that case, go inland. If your residence is heavily
damaged, it may be dangerous to enter. Err on the side of caution.
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
Wear personal protection gear including long pants, long
sleeves, boots, gloves, and eyewear while cleaning up debris. Be wary of lifting
heavy objects without assistance.
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,
you’ll have a better to chance to communicate with texts due to the wavelength
Even if phone service is out, you can monitor local news
reports on a battery operated or hand crank radio. Be vigilant about emergency alerts
TRAPPED UNDER DEBRIS!
What do you do if the absolute worse happens and you find
yourself trapped under debris?
In this circumstance, you’ll probably be inhaling a great
deal of dust, so cover your face with an article of clothing or anything else
that will serve as a barrier. Don’t light matches, as gas leaks could cause an
explosion. Use anything you can to tap on something solid to let people know
you’re there. If you live in an earthquake zone, it’s a wise move to attach a
whistle to your keychain. These are better options than shouting, which can
exhaust you pretty quickly.
After an earthquake or any natural disaster, those who are prepared will end up miles ahead of everyone else in terms of keeping their loved one out of harm’s way. Have a plan, store up supplies, and learn some first aid; if you can accomplish these goals, an earthquake might be just a bump on the road, and not the end of the road.
Joe Alton MD
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