Earthquake Preparedness

January 8, 2010

If you live in California, you’re probably pretty jaded when it comes to earthquakes, joking that “anything under 5.0 doesn’t count.” The reality is that even those tiny temblors can cause a lot of damage if the shock wave moves in the wrong direction, or if they’re centered closer to the surface of the earth. If your home is older, even a mild quake like yesterday’s 4.1 near Milpitas can still crack a pipe – and if that happens, your homeowners insurance won’t help, but earthquake insurance will.

Even if you don’t live in California, it might be wise to start looking at earthquake insurance rates. After all, some of the most powerful shakers in American history occurred outside the Golden State. Alaska, for example, has had many quakes measuring greater than 8.0, including a 1964 earthquake that shook Prince William Sound to the tune of 9.2. Nevada and Idaho are also likely locations, and one of the most significant earthquakes in the U.S. was an 1811 temblor centered near New Madrid, MO. It measured 7.7 – about the same as the 1906 quake that decimated San Francisco – and actually changed the course of a river.

Once you’ve protected your home with earthquake insurance, it’s good to know what do do during and after a quake. Most important, of course, is to stay calm. But aside from that, here are some tips for when the earth stops moving beneath your feet:

  1. Wear Shoes: Earthquake damage tends to involve a lot of broken glass and debris. If you’ve had damage to your home, put on your sturdiest shoes before doing anything else.
  2. Expect Aftershocks: Most earthquakes have an initial strong wave and then several smaller ones, like ripples on a pond, getting progressively less powerful.
  3. Check for Injuries: If anyone is with you, check to be sure everyone is alright, and have them do the same for you, if possible. If you or someone else is bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound, if someone isn’t breathing, and you know how, begin CPR. Whatever happens, unless staying where they are would be MORE dangerous, never move an injured person. Do seek medical attention as soon as possible.
  4. Check for Hazards: Strong earthquakes may knock out the power; if that happens, and it isn’t too dark, make a quick circuit of your home or office and turn off or unplug appliances, in order to minimize damage from power surges later. If a fire breaks out put it out immediately, then call for help. If you smell gas, or suspect a gas leak, turn off the main gas valve. Don’t touch power lines that are damaged, but do shut off the electrical power at the control box to your home if there is imminent danger to your wiring. Spills should be cleaned up as soon as possible. If you have a chimney, and suspect damage, have it inspected before using your wood stove or fireplace. Beware of items that may fall from shelves when you open closets or cabinets.
  5. Food and Water: Never eat or drink anything that may be contaminated by shattered glass. If power is off, use foods that will spoil quickly first – frozen foods should be good for a couple of days. Don’t light the kitchen stove if it’s gas, and you suspect a leak, but do use grills or camp stoves OUTSIDE. If water is turned off, you can drink water from melted ice cubes, or from the hot water heater, but you should always keep bottled water in the house. You can bathe in swimming pool water, or use it to flush toilets, but don’t drink it.

What about the myth of standing in or under a doorway during an earthquake? The U.S. Geological Survey says, “Only if you live in an old, unreinforced adobe house.” Otherwise, your best bet is to practice a 1950’s-style “duck and cover” under a large, sturdy piece of furniture.