If you were caught up in the midst of a massive earthquake – the kind that takes down buildings and buckles roads – would you know what to do?
I’m not talking about a minor temblor that shakes a glass off the counter and sends it to shatter on the floor.
I’m talking about The Big One. The one for which we are long overdue.
The United States has several active fault zones, and some of them are capable of producing extremely destructive quakes. While most people think of the West Coast (and for excellent reason), there are massive faults in other places in the US, too.
- The San Andreas Fault
- The Cascadia Fault
- The New Madrid Seismic Zone ( Has 15 nuclear power stations on it)
- The Hayward Fault
- The Ramapo Fault
- The Puente Hills Fault
ALL of these fault lines have ruptured before, and they will rupture again. In fact, according to this map, more than half of the continental US could expect a major quake within the next 50 years.
…while all U.S. states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states “have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years,” which is generally considered the typical lifetime of a building. Sixteen of those states have a “relatively high likelihood” of damaging shaking.
With those odds, it’s pretty likely that most of us will experience a significant earthquake in our lifetime.
This article isn’t about the long-term aftermath of an earthquake, during which you’d be unlikely to have power, safe water, or access to the stores for supplies. It’s about surviving the event itself.
Here’s how to survive an earthquake.
So what should you do when the ground starts shaking?
It depends on where you are. We’ll go over three different scenarios. It’s critical to note that sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the situation will be very fluid. Be ready to adapt quickly if plan A doesn’t work. (Check out this article on the three steps to survival.)
Standard advice is to
- Drop: get as low to the ground as possible
- Cover: Cover your head, get under something, bend forward to protect your vital organs
- Hold on: Hold on to your shelter with one hand and move along with it if it shifts
Depending on the severity of the earthquake you may not get emergency announcements advising of evacuation routes or refuge centers. The emergency services themselves may be unable to function, and communications may be down.
You could be on your own for a considerable length of time before rescuers get to you. It’s vital to think clearly and logically, which is not always easy in an emergency situation. That’s why it’s important to think these things through ahead of time – so that you’ve already made many of the necessary decisions well before the first sign of a tremor.
What to do if you’re outside during an earthquake
If you’re outside the biggest risk is being hit by something that has been structurally damaged by the quake.
- Move away from building to avoid getting hit by falling masonry.
- Avoid being near power lines.
- Move to the most open ground you can find – a park or open space – which will decrease the danger from falling buildings or downed power lines.
- If you are within 10 miles of the coast, head for higher ground immediately.
- If you are in your vehicle, stop in as open an area as possible. If you are on a ramp or a bridge, do not stop! Get off of it immediately.
- Be alert for emergency announcements. If so, follow the advice.
- If not, start to consider your next move – which will hopefully be following a plan you and your family made well ahead of time for a place to meet up safely.
What to do if you’re at the beach during an earthquake
The biggest danger of experiencing an earthquake when you’re at the beach is during the aftermath. A tsunami can travel as far as 10 miles inland, wiping out everything in its path. You will have no way of knowing where the epicenter of the quake was. The highest risk occurs when the epicenter is at sea. Here’s a quick tsunami primer:
Most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. As a result, most tsunamis occur near or at fault lines. When a tsunami is generated, it is not only 1 wave. Instead it is a series of waves, known as a wave train. These waves travel together and can be up to 1 hour apart. Tsunami waves travel extremely fast with speeds of up to 500 miles per hour—the speed of a jet.
They can be as wide as 60 miles and cross entire oceans without losing momentum. When a tsunami is traveling, it may be less than a foot in height. This causes it to be unnoticed by sailors who are at sea. As the tsunami approaches land, it hits shallow water and begins to slow down. The top of the wave, however, continues travelling, causing the sea to rise dramatically. Tsunamis are extremely destructive on land. The waves can surge up to 100 feet in height and completely devastate a coastal area. (source)
Tsunami waves travel at hundreds of miles per hour. You must act immediately.
- Move inland and to higher ground as far and as fast as you can.
- If there are tsunami evacuation routes marked, follow them.
- If you see the water recede dramatically, get the heck out of dodge – you have only moments before the tsunami hits.
After the initial wave, it is extremely likely that more will follow. These waves can be up to an hour apart. Do not return to lower ground until officials have given the all-clear.
What to do if you’re indoors during an earthquake
If you are inside when a quake occurs, your priority is to protect yourself until you can escape the building.
- Move away from the windows immediately. They can shatter.
- Move away from exterior walls. In a very severe quake, the sides of buildings can give way.
- Move away from any shelves, cabinets, or other loose items that could fall on you.
- Take shelter in or under the sturdiest thing you can find. Stairwells can be a good option if you are close to one. Otherwise, duck under a sturdy desk or table. (Not the cruddy fiberboard kind, obviously.)
- Cover your head as added protection. Grab whatever you can find: large books, a chair, or even a briefcase held over your head can help protect you from falling debris.
If you are at home when disaster strikes, the same rules apply. Don’t let familiarity with your surroundings lull you into a false sense of security.
The danger of aftershocks
Remember that aftershocks can often be as powerful (or even more so) as the initial event. There is no reliable way to predict how soon those shocks will arrive.
What to do immediately after the earthquake
As soon as the shaking stops you need to assess your situation as quickly and calmly as possible.
- From your sheltered position, survey the area for hanging light fixtures and exposed wires. These could be live and cause electrocution.
- When you move from your temporary shelter, scan the area ahead of you. Look for open wiring, broken pipes, holes in floors, and other hazards.
- DO NOT use the elevators to evacuate from a higher floor, even though it may seem quicker. Not only could the power go off, trapping you, but there could also be damage of which you are unaware. Don’t risk plummetting to your death because you didn’t want to take the stairs.
- Move slowly and carefully towards the nearest exit, then pause and assess the outlying areas. Are the stairs still intact enough to use? If not, is there another flights of stairs that you can get to from your current position?
- Be prepared to move laterally to other areas to find the safest escape route if you are trapped on upper floors. Look for “staff only” doors which may lead to service stairs ways and exit doors that may be less damaged.
- When you reach the ground floor (or if you’re already on it), don’t just rush out of the building. Pause and see if anything is falling in front of you. The risk from falling debris immediately after an earthquake is extremely high.
- If your exit to the outside is blocked, be very cautious moving debris to escape. Try to assess what that wood, concrete, or metal is holding up before you move it. The slightest shift has the potential to cause a collapse. Before moving the debris, see if other exits might be less risky.
How to safely evacuate after an earthquake
If you need to leave the immediate area, there are a few things to keep in mind to travel safely.
- Avoid underpasses, overpasses, and bridges. They may be structurally unsound.
- Stay as far away from building as you can.
- Be on the lookout for potential hazards such as downed power lines or leaning trees.
- Crevasses caused by earthquakes can be very deep. Injury or even death could occur if you step or drive into one.
- Stay as far away as you can from dikes and levees, which may have sustained structural damage. If they rupture, the force of the water will be immense.
Have you ever been in a major earthquake?
Do you have any tips that should be added to this article? Have you got any stories of your experiences during or after an earthquake? Share them in the comments section below.
More about earthquakes:
Cascadia (a novel about a massive earthquake in the PNW – great read!)