They arrive without warning, and they can turn your life upside down. They are earthquakes.
Not only should you have a plan before they strike, but it’s imperative to have a plan for afterward, too, especially because you may find yourself stunned and wondering what just happened.
But you can’t wait long after the ground stops shaking. “Rules are deadly,” says Patrick Corcoran, Coastal Hazards Outreach Specialist and professor at Oregon State University. “Look around with a prepared eye, but you must realize that to be able to execute a plan, you must anticipate the unpredictable.” If you live in earthquake country, you should always be acutely aware of your surroundings, Corcoran advises. “The chances of being at your home, with your prepared survival kit, and against an interior wall are small,” he says. “All plans go out the window at this point.”
Which is why it’s critical to have the plan in place. “Think of escaping an earthquake or tsunami in terms of music,” Corcoran says. “Classical music traditions plan linearly and follow defined paths, while jazz music uses a handful of principles based on what is in front of you. Use what you have in front of you to survive.”
“Gotcha” hazards to avoid
While most of us envision a post-earthquake environment to consist of dangers such as falling rubble and chasms in the highways, the more realistic dangers are things you may not have even considered.
Knowing what the most dangerous hazards are following a quake will potentially save your life. “It wasn’t the earthquake that killed people in San Francisco during the 1906 disaster,” Corcoran says. “The fires are what killed the majority of people because the water mains broke, and the fires couldn’t be put out.” Indeed, fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake, FEMA indicates on its Web site.
The agency recommends keeping a fire extinguisher in your home, particularly if you live in a quake zone. In addition to fires, you should watch out for the other “gotcha hazards” that pop up after an earthquake, which are usually more deadly than the actual quake.
If you are inside during the quake, your first order of business should be to protect your head from falling objects. Look around you for loose materials and try to move outside to a natural area free from debris or dangers. Help those who are injured or trapped and get them to safety.
In addition, you should ensure that nothing toxic spilled inside of your home during the quake. Clean up any bleach, gasoline or other flammable liquids right away. But if you smell natural gas or other strong chemical fumes, leave immediately, FEMA advises. Don’t ever assume something is stable if it doesn’t look damaged.
Once outside, you are not necessarily safe from harm. “Downed power lines and gas leaks are real killers after the tremors stop,” says Corcoran, “and landslides are particularly bad if you live in a hilly region.” If you live near a beach, stay as far from the water as possible to protect yourself from any potential tsunamis, which could happen within minutes following an earthquake.
Check your utilities
One threat that is close to everyone’s home is the risk of your utilities wreaking havoc on your safety. If you hear any hissing sounds, leave your building and turn off the gas at the main valve if possible, FEMA advises. Call your gas company after you are safely away from the property. In addition, if you smell burning or hot insulation, turn off the electricity at your circuit breaker.
Avoid any down, sparking, or frayed wires or power lines, and do not step in water if live wires are nearby. During a quake, plumbing lines are also likely to come loose. If you see any sewage or water leaks, avoid running water and call a plumber right away. If water lines in your yard are spilling, call the water company and ask its representatives to send someone to turn off the water main.
Worrying into action
In the end, we have a better chance of surviving if we prepare appropriately and stop stressing. “Americans are neurologically challenged when it comes to worrying about natural disasters,” Corcoran says. “We know it happens, but we can’t accept it happening to us.” Corcoran asserts that 90 percent of the people in Japan in the last tsunami and earthquake evacuated because it is a “real event” to them their parents and grandparents remember, and it is part of their personal history.
Most Americans no longer have relatives or neighbors that lived through a “big one.” Accepting that a major earthquake is inevitable, especially on the West Coast, is the first step in escaping its destruction. And have that plan for afterward.
What kids should do after an earthquake hits
Earthquakes are real hazards if you live in a danger zone, and children need to be educated about what to do when the temblors stop.
Putting a plan together and talking about all the possible scenarios might seem overwhelming as a parent, but your family will most likely be separated after the disaster, and their survival might depend on this preparation.
In addition to knowing the plan, kids need to know where to go, who to trust and what to avoid. Both FEMA and the American Red Cross have great activities and ideas to help prepare children for earthquakes, including the following:
- Encourage children to always go to higher ground if possible and protect their bodies from falling debris.
- Set up a predetermined place where you’ll meet up after an earthquake, but do not rush there because travel might be dangerous right after the quake.
- Show kids what to avoid: powerlines, playgrounds, parks, broken buildings and beaches.
- Teach them who to trust (teachers, emergency personnel, safe neighbors) if you are not together.
- Make them memorize an out-of-town relative’s name and number to call when the phones go back on, in case you do not reconnect after the quake.
Essentials for your survival kit after an earthquake hits
- Car or solar chargers for cell phones
You might not have electricity for a while after a quake, but you’ll certainly want to contact loved ones.
- Dust masks for contaminated areas
Walking through a post-earthquake environment can create multiple hazards, including dirty air. A mask will ensure that you continue breathing.
- Towelettes, garbage bags and ties for human waste and sanitation
It’s no fun to think about, but the chance exists that you won’t have plumbing after an earthquake. These items will keep your area sanitary.