Keeping Your Family Safe During an Earthquake

Safety Team
Updated Jan 27, 2021
9 min read

Unlike other types of natural disasters, earthquakes can happen at any time, without any notice. Being prepared for an earthquake will make the difference in being able to protect yourself, your family or your home in the event of earthquake. Keep reading to learn how to prepare your home and family for an earthquake, as well as what to do during and after earthquake to stay safe.

Where earthquakes happen most in the US

All fifty states and five U.S. territories are susceptible to an earthquake, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, there are regions of the country where earthquakes happen more often. The map below shows where earthquake hazard risks are highest and lowest.

Prepare yourself and your family for an earthquake

To prepare for an earthquake, FEMA advises that you prepare three things: your home, your family, and your community. Be sure that each member of your family knows what to do during an earthquake. Schedule drills with your family to practice what your earthquake safety plan. These drills should include the specific steps for Drop, Cover, and Hold On! Also, make sure all of your family members know when and how to contact 9-1-1.

Earthquakes may strike at anytime, anywhere. Protect yourself and your family by having an earthquake readiness plan in place. Here are some tips for your earthquake readiness plan.

  • Take some time to discuss evacuation with your family. Sketch a floor plan of your home; walk through each room and discuss evacuation details.
  • Plan a second way to exit each room or area. If special equipment is needed, mark where it is located.
  • Mark where your emergency food, water, first aid kits, and fire extinguishers are located.
  • Store a type-ABC fire extinguisher in an easily accessible location.
  • Mark where the utility switches or valves are located, and learn how to turn off your gas and water mains, as well as electricity.
  • Indicate the location of your family’s emergency outdoor meeting place.
  • Keep several flashlights in easily accessible places around the house.
  • Keep a wrench or turn-off tool in waterproof wrap near the gas meter.
  • Know whether you live, work or play in a tsunami hazard zone.
  • Obtain a NOAA Weather Radio with the Public Alert feature to notify you of tsunamis and other hazards.
  • Keep a flashlight, slippers and gloves next to beds.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full.
  • Determine safe spaces away from windows in each room of your home. Choose spots where it is unlikely something will fall on you.
  • Prepare a disaster kit. Stock up on canned food, a first-aid kit, 3 gallons of water per person, dust masks, goggles, battery-operated radio and flashlights.

Your disaster supplies kit

Keep a current emergency supply kit in your home and make sure all family members know its location. Your disaster kit should include one or two portable containers, such as plastic tubs or book bags, holding the supplies your family would need to survive without outside aid for at least three days following the earthquake. Remember, basic services like electricity, gas, water, sewer and telephone may be out for days following an earthquake.

Include emergency food and water supplies, extra cash, batteries, medication and other necessary supplies. In addition, keep an emergency backpack with copies of important documents near the door to grab and go. You can also make additional, smaller kits to keep in your car and at work.

Your emergency supply kit should also contain the addresses, phone numbers and evacuation sites for each place where family members spend time, including schools, workplaces, etc. Have your family members  carry a copy of this list, or contact card, in their wallets, purses or backpacks.

Caring for people, pets and property in an emergency

You may have to care for injured people or pets after an earthquake. First aid and CPR training can help with this; contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross to become certified.

After an earthquake, you and your family could be ordered to evacuate a damaged area. If you have pets, find out where you could shelter your family pets if you should have to evacuate.

Flood zones near your home, work or school

If you work, live or go to school near a dam – know the flood-zone information and have a prepared evacuation plan. Dams can fail during major earthquakes, so be prepared for potential flooding.

Prepare your home for an earthquake

Make your home more resistant to earthquake damage by assessing its structure and contents. Look into whether your home is anchored to its foundation, has weak crawl space walls, has unbraced pier-and-post foundations or has masonry walls or foundations that are not reinforced. Hire a professional contractor to fix weaknesses you find. If you rent, ask your landlord how the home has been strengthened to guard against earthquakes.

Use this checklist to prepare your home an earthquake.

  • Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves.
  • Store breakable items, such as bottled foods, glass and china, in low, closed cabinets with latches.
  • Securely fasten heavy items, such as picture and mirrors, and away from beds and seating areas.
  • Repair defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections, or get qualified professionals to help.
  • Install flexible pipe fittings to avoid gas and water leaks.
  • Secure your water heater, refrigerator, furnace and gas appliances by strapping them to wall studs or bolt them to the floor. You may want to have an automatic gas shut-off valve installed that is triggered by strong vibrations, if recommended by your gas company.
  • Repair deep cracks in ceilings and foundations; get expert advice if you think there are structural defects
  • Be sure the home is firmly anchored to its foundation.
  • Store weed killers, pesticides, and flammable products securely in closed cabinets with latches on the bottom shelves.
  • Hang plants in lightweight pots with closed hooks, well secured to a joist or wall stud and far away from windows.
  • Install strong latches on kitchen cabinets.
  • Remove or lock refrigerator wheels.
  • Secure free-standing wood stoves or fireplace inserts.
  • Keep heavy, unstable objects away from doors and exit routes.
  • Secure knickknacks and other small valuables with museum putty.
  • Trim hazardous tree limbs.
  • Reinforce brick chimneys.

Some insurance companies offer earthquake insurance, so you may want to consider asking your state insurance commissioner about the availability of earthquake insurance in your area, as well.

What to do during an earthquake

If an earthquake hits while you are indoors, stay inside and take cover. Studies have shown that injuries and deaths caused by earthquakes over the last several decades are most often caused by falling or flying objects, such as TVs, lamps, glass, bookcases, etc. and not by the collapsed building. If you’re outdoors when an earthquake happens, then stay outside and do not try to go inside. Use the tips below protect yourself during an earthquake.

If you are indoors when a earthquake hits:

  • Drop down and take cover under a desk or table. Be prepared to hold on until the shaking stops.
  • Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to exit.
  • Stay away from bookcases and other furniture that can fall on you.
  • Stay away from windows and light fixtures.
  • If you are in bed – hold on and stay there. Protect your head with a pillow to protect yourself from flying glass and other debris.
  • If you are in a wheelchair – go to a safe position and lock the wheels. Stay where you are and cover your head and neck with your arms if you are unable to move quickly to a safe location.
  • If you are inside a high-rise – drop, cover and hold on.  Avoid windows and other potential hazards. Do not use elevators, and be prepared for sprinkler systems and fire alarms to activate.

If you are outdoors during an earthquake:

  • Drop to the ground in a clear spot away from buildings, trees and power lines.
  • If you are driving – pull over, stop and set your parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, trees, signs, buildings, vehicles and other things that may fall on your car.

What to do in stadiums, theater and large venues:

  • If you are in a stadium or theater – stay at your seat and protect your head and neck with your arms. Don’t try to leave until the shaking has stopped. Then, walk out slowly, watching for anything that could fall during aftershocks.

Avoid making these mistakes during an earthquake

Experts at the University of Washington and most rescuers caution against making these mistakes during an earthquake:

  • Do NOT run outside or to other rooms during the shaking. An earthquake’s shaking can cause you to fall down. You may also run into flying and falling objects that could cause serious injury.
  • Do NOT stand in a doorway. Doorways in modern homes are not stronger than other parts of the house, contrary to widely-held belief. In a doorway, you’re also at risk of being struck by falling or flying objects, the most common source of earthquake injuries.
  • Do NOT get in the “triangle of life” (getting next to a table rather than under it). Experts argue that “triangle of life” recommendations are based on wrong assumptions about what actually happens during an earthquake and it unpredictability. The safest bet to get underneath a table or desk.

What to do after an earthquake

Earthquakes are commonly followed by aftershocks, some very strong in magnitude. What’s more, buildings that have been structurally compromised by an earthquake are more susceptible to collapse during these aftershocks. Earthquakes can also spur other natural disasters like tsunamis and landslides afterwards. Once an earthquake is over, follow these steps to ensure your safety:

  • Look around to be sure it is safe to move.
  • If you are inside, exit the building and go to an open space far from any damage and other buildings.
  • If you have your cell phone, use it to call or send a text for help.
  • Help injured or trapped people, but do not move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of sustaining more injuries. Give first aid as appropriate.
  • Look for and extinguish small fires. Fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake.
  • Listen to a battery-operated radio or television for the most recent emergency information.
  • Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in a coastal area, and stay away from the beach. If a tsunami warning is issued, assume that dangerous waves are on the way.
  • Go to a designated shelter if your home is no longer safe. You may text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area.
  • Stay away from damaged areas, unless police, fire or relief organizations specifically request your assistance. Return home only when the authorities say it is safe.
  • Be careful when driving after an earthquake and anticipate light outages.
  • Cautiously open cabinets. Beware of objects that could fall off shelves.
  • Visit to learn how to keep food safe during and after an emergency, if you have access to an internet connection. If you don’t, then consult with emergency relief workers on how best to keep food and water safe.
  • Put on long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sturdy shoes and work gloves to protect yourself against broken objects.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately. Leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from chemicals.
  • Inspect the length of your chimney for damage. Damage that is undetected could lead to a fire.
  • Inspect your utilities: check for gas leaks; look for electrical system damage; and check for sewage and water lines damage.
  • While your home security system may provide you with access to a monitoring center for help, remember to only call 911 in the event of a real emergency.

New Advancements in Detection and Broadcast

Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) systems continue to be a work in progress. The state of California introduced ShakeAlert® which uses the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) of motion sensors and sends notifications and alerts directly to residents. As we know, surviving an earthquake can come down to a matter of seconds. This early detection notification system is currently expanding within California, Washington, and Oregon. In 2019, the University of California at Berkeley released the MyShake app for your smartphone that delivers the ShakeAlert® notifications to your phone.

Final thoughts: get involved in your community

Finally, you can prepare your yourself, family and community for an earthquake by participating in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, which occur a few times each year. This provides an organized opportunity for families, schools, organizations, and individuals to practice how to respond during an earthquake and be better prepared.

Because your community will have to work together after an earthquake hits, you should become involved in your local volunteer programs that work toward your community’s disaster resilience efforts. There may be opportunities available through the American Red Cross and FEMA’s Citizen Corps and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs.

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