By Matthew Stein, P.E., Author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival, ISBN #978-1933392837, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT (800) 639-4099

Shelly and Phil Rodgers were in their home in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains when the Loma Prieta quake struck. The epicenter was about seven miles from their home. The house shook violently and all of their cupboards opened, throwing every dish, jar, can, bookcase, television, and appliance to the floor. Phil said that the house floors undulated like a snake, appearing to change elevation by more than a foot in different parts of the house as the quake shook through. They were not able to leave the house until the earth stopped moving. Because their car keys and shoes were still inside, Phil had to brave the aftershocks and wade through broken glass to retrieve keys and shoes so they could attempt the drive to town to pick up their kids. He brought a chainsaw with him, which was needed to cut large limbs that had fallen across the road.

On their way to town, they passed the spot where a neighbor’s house should have been. It had been built on tall pylons overlooking the hillside. When the quake struck, it slid off the piers and down the canyon. The two occupants on the first floor managed to crawl out the door moments before it took off, but their son, who was sleeping on the second floor, went for the wildest ride of his life. He miraculously rode through it uninjured, as the first floor disintegrated and the roof split away and to the side. Another friend had a home that lacked proper shear wall nailing and adequate attachment to the foundation. This home slid off the foundation and was a total loss, receiving the “bulldozer remodeling job.”

Even though you may not live in an area prone to earthquakes, I recommend that you read this section on earthquake preparedness and follow the guidelines. It is a little-known fact that the largest earthquakes on record in the United States did not happen in California but along the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri, in late 1811 and early 1812. The quakes were so powerful that they shook down chimneys 360 miles away in Cincinnati and changed the course of the Mississippi River for more than 100 miles.

Several recent significant earthquakes have occurred on faults that were considered inactive or were totally unknown to geologists. Earthquake faults crisscross the entire country. The fact that most of them have not moved significantly in recent geological history does not mean that they can’t or won’t move within your lifetime. At the time that the Kobe Japan quake struck, Japan had prided itself on being the most earthquake prepared country in the world. To the dismay of the Kobe quake’s survivors, the huge magnitude of  this quake’s devastation had overwhelmed Japan’s disaster relief services and it was nine days before most of the survivors received water and food supplies.

Because major earthquakes could happen at almost any location, you should take the following precautions:

  • Make sure that your home hot water heater is secured with “earthquake straps” or metal plumber’s tape to prevent it from toppling and rupturing gas and/or water lines during an earthquake.
  • Store a sturdy pair of shoes and leather work gloves under each bed. Broken glass often covers the floor during quakes.
  • If you live in a climate subject to freezing temperatures, store extra antifreeze (preferably the nontoxic RV type) for winterizing your toilet bowls and sink traps.
  • Keep a backup propane, kerosene, or wood heater (and fuel) for emergency space heating.
  • Store a roll of plastic sheeting, 50 feet minimum (available at hardware or contractor’s supply stores).
  • Keep well-stocked, 72-hour emergency kits in the car (or other outside location), including spare clothing, spare food, water filter and water purification chemicals (see 72 Hour “Grab-And-Run” Survival Kits for more details).
  • Use child locks on your kitchen cabinets to prevent your dishes from flying out of the cabinets during an earthquake. Attach heavy bookcases and other tall furniture to the wall. Use Velcro straps to secure computers in place.
  • Keep spare car keys stored in or on your car (or other outside location). If your clothes, wallet, and keys disappear in a collapsed house on a cold winter’s day, you will be grateful for a spare key!
  • If you live in a cold climate, make sure that you have extra shoes and clothing stored in your car, or other out side location. If you dash outside in your night clothes (like we did during an earthquake in the Tahoe area when the temperatures were below zero), you will be grateful for the extra clothing.
  • Keep a permanent shutoff wrench attached to your gas shutoff (available at surplus and survival stores). In the least, each adult member of the household should know where the electrical, gas and water shutoffs are located, and how to operate them.
  • If you are an urban dweller and have no car, or store your car under a large building, you might consider arranging with friends or relatives to store some supplies in their garage, garden shed, and so on.
  • Have at least one week’s supply of food on hand, and preferably a month or more. If there is no local surface water that you can filter or purify, make sure you store large garbage cans, bottles, or barrels, filled with back up potable water.
  • Keep a well stocked first aid kit on hand, and a smaller one in your Grab-And-Run kit (see First Aid Kits article for specific recommendations).
    • In the Event of an Earthquake:If you are stuck inside a building during a severe quake, the safest places to be are in doorways or under a heavy-duty desk or table, because offer some protection from falling debris.

      CAUTION: If you smell gas, or the quake was severe, immediately turn off the outside electrical, water and gas utility supplies to your house (gas utility personnel may need to turn it back on).

      If a gas leak is suspected, do not light an open flame or turn on an electric switch. All common electric switches arc when turned on or off, and may ignite explosive gases. If you suspect a gas leak and need to turn on a flashlight, turn it on or off outside, in the open air. Glow sticks are a safe light source that will not ignite flammable gases.

      NOTE: If the earthquake is severe, trust your gut feeling. Whether it is your brain processing millions of bits of information at incredible speeds, or it is your spiritual intuitive self or a higher power offering help in a crisis, many survivors of life or death situations (like the firemen who miraculously survived the collapse of the Twin Towers) credit an inner voice that guided them instantly to take the precise split second action that was credited with saving their lives. You may be safest in a doorway or under a table, but you may also need to make a dash outside. Let your “gut feel” help you with this split second decision. If the earthquake is extremely severe, you will be constantly thrown off your feet and unable to run anywhere.