The Best Methods for Surviving
Earthquake Disasters..

By increasing your knowledge about the nature of earthquakes, you'll improve your survival chances with these kinds of disasters.

An earthquake disaster is the result of a sudden release of a tremendous amount of energy in the Earth's crust.

Earthquake Impact on a Building in Haiti

This creates seismic waves in the surrounding land mass. The sudden, rapid shaking of the earth’s mantle occurs suddenly, often without warning. Sometimes, the larger earthquake is preceded by many smaller quakes known as tremors. Post earthquake “tremors” are called aftershocks. Earthquakes can occur at any time of the year, day, or night. Within the U.S. they have occurred in forty-five states and territories to some degree of magnitude. They are just not a coastal region occurrence.

An earthquake's point of initial rupture is called its focus or hypocenter. The term epicenter refers to the point at ground level directly above the hypocenter. The energy release at this epicenter is where the maximum degree of movement is reported. The outward circles from this epicenter decrease in strength and intensity as they radiate outward like rings on a tranquil pond of still water where a rock has landed.

In its most generic sense, the word earthquake is used to describe any seismic event — whether a natural phenomenon or an event caused by humans — that generates seismic waves. It is the intensity of the seismic waves that dictates whether it can be classified as a disaster and then only if urban areas suffer a great deal of damage. Earthquakes are caused mostly by the rupture of geological faults. But, they can also be caused by volcanic activity, landslides, mine blasts, liquid injections, and nuclear experiments.

Earthquakes are recorded with a seismometer, also known as a seismograph. The moment of maximum magnitude of an earthquake is conventionally reported by earthquake monitoring systems. By using multiple seismographs placed throughout the continents, scientist and geologists are able to pin point the center and approximate its strength. The nearly obsolete magnitude measuring method called the Richter Scale would give a magnitude of 3 or lower for imperceptible earthquakes and those of a magnitude 7 or greater for those quakes causing the most serious damage over large areas. Today, the intensity of shaking is measured on the modified Mercalli scale by scientist. However, for public communication, the Richter Scale is used because of the familiarity of the scale over time.

At the Earth's surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and sometimes displacing the ground which creates geological faults vertically or cracks of various sizes. When a large earthquake epicenter is located offshore, the seabed sometimes suffers sufficient displacement to cause a tsunami which can be enormous tidal-like waves of great height moving at very high speeds for great distances. The shaking caused by earthquakes can also trigger landslides and sometimes, volcanic activity.

Feasibility of an Earthquake Occurring in Your Area

Are you at risk from an earthquake? It’s easy to find out. Earthquake monitoring is handled in the U.S. by the U.S. Geological Survey. (See Additional Resources Section below for the URL). Their website can inform anyone with internet access, up to the minute reporting and analysis complete with maps of where an earthquake has occurred and at what strength. They also provide maps of the U.S as well as global maps of seismic activity over recent history. You can even get a statistical analysis of earthquake probability for your area using either your GIS coordinates or Zip Code.

Other organizations to contact are your local emergency management office, local American Red Cross chapter, state geological survey, or state department of natural resources.

What Typically Happens When an Earthquake Occurs?

One of the most frightening and destructive phenomena of nature is a severe earthquake and its terrible after effects. Some people that survive earthquake disasters have been known to leave the area as soon as feasible, never to return. Some individuals have even been traumatized for life. Many others live on in denial.

Because earthquakes strike suddenly, violently, and without warning at any time, one simply needs to prepare for such an event well in advance if you want any hope of surviving earthquake distasters. The closer you live to a known “fault zone” the more you need to be prepared. If an sizeable earthquake occurs in a populated area, it will likely cause many deaths and injuries as well as extensive property damage.

Although there are no guarantees of safety during an earthquake, identifying potential hazards ahead of time and advance planning can save lives and significantly reduce injuries and property damage. Witnesses have noticed that animals seem to be able to detect a coming earthquake at least several minutes before it arrives. Unfortunately, this window of alert is too small for humans to take advantage of other than “taking cover”.

Planning and Preparing for an Earthquake

Because of the suddenness of an earthquake’s occurrence, it is always too late to take preventive measures once it begins other than immediately seeking protection for your body. Given this fact, preparation is the key to surviving earthquake disasters. It's that simple. By identifying potential hazards ahead of time and by advanced planning, one can reduce the dangers of serious injury or loss of life from an earthquake. Homes and offices that are built with local seismic building standards will help reduce the impact of earthquakes up to a certain level of intensity.

Six Ways to Plan Ahead

  • Check for Hazards in the Home
    • Fasten shelves securely to walls.
    • Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves.
    • Store breakable items such as bottled foods, glass, and china in low, closed cabinets with latches.
    • Hang heavy items such as pictures and mirrors away from beds, couches, and anywhere people sit or recline.
    • Brace overhead light and fan fixtures.
    • Bolt and brace water heaters and gas appliances to wall studs or floor joists.
    • Bolt bookcases, china cabinets, and other tall furniture to wall studs.
    • Repair defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections. These are potential fire risks.
    • Secure a water heater by strapping it to the wall studs and bolting it to the floor and make sure it uses flexible piping to prevent water damage.
    • Repair any deep cracks in ceilings or foundations. Get expert advice if there are signs of structural defects.
    • Manufactured home and homes not attached to their foundations or piers are at particular risk during an earthquake.
    • Buildings with foundations resting on landfill and other unstable soils are at increased risk of damage.
    • Store weed killers, pesticides, and flammable products securely in closed cabinets with latches and on the bottom shelves.
  • Identify Safe Places Indoors and Outdoors
    • Under sturdy furniture such as a heavy desk or table.
    • Against an inside wall. However, doorways are not particularly safe unless they are load bearing.
    • Away from where glass could shatter around windows, mirrors, pictures, or where heavy bookcases or other heavy furniture could fall over.
    • In the open, away from buildings, trees, telephone, and electrical lines, overpasses, or elevated expressways.
  • Educate Yourself and Family Members
    • Contact your local emergency management office, American Red Cross chapter, FEMA, or U.S. Geological Survey for more information on earthquakes.
    • Teach children how and when to call 9-1-1, police, or fire department and which radio station to tune to for emergency information.
    • Teach all family members how and when to turn off gas, electricity, and water.
  • Have Disaster Supplies on Hand and Easily Accessible.
    • Flashlight and extra batteries.
    • Portable battery-operated radio and extra batteries or a solar powered radio.
    • A robust first aid kit and manual.
    • Emergency food and water. Food should not require refrigeration and cooking and should have at least a one year shelf life.
    • Nonelectric can opener.
    • Essential medicines for each family member.
    • Fire making supplies and fuel.
    • Cash and credit cards.
    • Sturdy shoes and clothing suitable for wide range of local weather.
    • Fire extinguishers.
    • Personal protection equipment for crime prevention.
      • Handgun and/or shotgun with suitable ammunition.
      • Mace.
      • Concealed carry license if desired--the training is excellent!.
    • Basic camping equipment should your home be destroyed or too dangerous to continue living in especially in context of aftershocks.
      • Tent
      • Sleeping bags
      • Air mattresses
      • Portable lantern(s).
      • In colder climates, appropriate amounts of suitable clothing and a heat source.
  • Develop an Emergency Communication Plan
    • In case family members are separated from one another during an earthquake (a real possibility during the day when adults are at work and children are at school), develop a plan for reuniting after the disaster which should include a good meeting place.
    • Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as the "family contact." After a disaster, it's often easier to call long distance. Make sure everyone in the family knows the name, address, and phone number of the contact person.
  • Help Your Community or Neighborhood to Get Ready
    • Publish a special section in your local newspaper with emergency information on earthquakes. Localize the information by printing the phone numbers of local emergency services offices, the American Red Cross, law enforcement, and hospitals.
    • Conduct a discussion series on locating hazards in the home.
    • Work with local emergency services and American Red Cross officials to prepare special reports for people with mobility impairments on what to do during an earthquake.
    • Provide tips on conducting earthquake drills in the home.
    • Interview representatives of the gas, electric, and water companies about shutting off utilities if one doesn’t know how.
    • Work together in your community to supplement your knowledge on building codes, retrofitting programs, hazard hunts, and neighborhood, and family emergency plans.

Actions to Take to Survive Earthquake Disasters

Stay as safe as possible during an earthquake. Be aware that some earthquakes are actually foreshocks and a larger earthquake might occur. Minimize your movements to a few steps to a nearby safe place and stay indoors until the shaking has stopped and you are sure that you can exit safely.

There are several scenarios to plan contingencies for depending upon one’s location at the time the earthquake hits.

If Indoors...

  • DROP to the ground; take COVER by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture; and HOLD ON until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.
  • Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.
  • Stay in bed if you are there when the earthquake strikes. Hold on and protect your head with a pillow, unless you are under a heavy light fixture that could fall. In that case, move to the nearest safe place.
  • Use a doorway for shelter ONLY if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, load bearing doorway.
  • Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
  • Be aware that the electricity may go out or the sprinkler systems or fire alarms may turn on.
  • DO NOT use elevators if in an apartment or public office building.

If Outdoors...

  • Stay there.
  • Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
  • Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits, and alongside exterior walls. Many people are killed when they run outside of buildings and are hit by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

If In a Moving Vehicle...

Earthquake Impact on
California Freeways

  • Stop as quickly as safety permits and stay in the vehicle. Avoid stopping near or under buildings, trees, underpasses, overpasses, and utility wires. Get off any elevated roadway or bridge if possible after the shaking stops.
  • Proceed cautiously once the earthquake has stopped. Avoid roads, bridges, or ramps that might have been damaged by the earthquake.
  • If a power line falls on your vehicle, do not get out. Wait for assistance.
  • If you are in a mountainous area or near unstable slopes or cliffs, be alert for falling rocks and other debris. Landslides are often triggered by earthquakes.
  • Be alert to traffic light outages—proceed carefully through all intersections.

If Trapped Under Debris...

  • Do not light a match.
  • Do not move about or kick up dust.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you. Shout only as a last resort. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust and lose your strength.

Actions to Take After Surviving Earthquake Disasters

Execute the family re-grouping plan and prepare.

  • Families need to ensure their headcounts, conditions, and issues if at all possible and as soon as practical.
  • Put on long pants and shirt, good shoes, and work gloves to avoid injury while dealing with the areas of damage.

Help family injured or trapped persons and then others.

  • Attend first to yourself and family members for first aid and help.
  • Then help your neighbors who may require special assistance such as infants, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Give first aid where appropriate. Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help.
  • Constrain and control dogs.

Expect aftershocks.

  • Secondary shockwaves are usually less violent than the main quake but can be strong enough to do additional damage to weakened structures and can occur in the first hours, days, weeks, or even months after the quake.

Listen to a radio or television for information.

  • Listen for the latest emergency information using local utilities if operational or hand-cranked, solar, or battery operated radios. Tune to emergency channels first.

Use the telephone only for emergency calls.

  • Land phones may be unusable. Cell phones may work better, but traffic volume may prohibit easy access but keep trying.

Open cabinets cautiously.

  • Beware of objects that can fall out of cabinets or off shelves.

Stay away from damaged areas.

  • Stay away unless your assistance has been specifically requested by police, fire, or relief organizations. Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
  • Be on alert for down power lines, broken gas lines, water lines, and open faults in the ground.

Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in coastal areas.

  • These are also known as seismic sea waves (mistakenly called "tidal waves"). When local authorities issue a tsunami warning, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on the way. Stay away from the beach and gain as much elevation as possible—seconds count.

Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately.

  • Leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from other chemicals.

Inspect the entire length of chimneys for damage.

  • Unnoticed damage could lead to a fire.

Inspect utilities.

  • Check for gas leaks.
  • If you smell gas or hear blowing or hissing noise, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside main valve if you can and call the gas company from a neighbor's home. If you turn off the gas for any reason, it must be turned back on by a professional.

  • Look for electrical system damage.
  • If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If you have to step in water to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker, call an electrician first for advice.

  • Check for sewage and water lines damage.
  • If you suspect sewage lines are damaged, avoid using the toilets and call a plumber. If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company and avoid using water from the tap. You can obtain safe water by melting ice cubes, use your bottled water supplies, or specialized filtration devices such as a Berkley Water System.

  • Check TV, internet, and radio if electricity is still available.
  • If not, utilize your backup radio for news and information.

Additional Resources for Surviving Earthquake Disasters

American Red Cross

If your community experiences an earthquake, or any disaster you can register on the American Red Cross Safe and Well website available through Red Cross to let your family and friends know about your welfare. If you don’t have Internet access, call 1-866-GET-INFO to register yourself and your family. Go to

U.S. Geological Survey

Go to this website to run a earthquake probability map or text report for your zip code area to determine the chances of an earthquake occurring in your area greater than a certain magnitude, extending outward in a radius of a defined distance (kilometers) spanning X years into the future.

For a detailed, technical explanation of earthquakes and other geological disasters, this is the site to visit and browse. Go to

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—

Go to this website to view recent or current disaster activity and information. Go to

Earthquake Historical Notes:

The following headlines occurred each day of the Haiti Earthquake in January, 2010. The headlines are in day order sequence from the top down. This is the result of a severe earthquake of only a 7.0 magnitude taking place in a very poor, third world country with a dysfunctional government.

  • Survivors Face Diarrhea, Malaria and Cholera Outbreaks Amid Lack of Clean Water...
  • Looting...
  • Growing desperation...
  • HORROR: Corpses impede traffic; pyres of burning tires incinerate cadavers...
  • Angry Haitians block roads with corpses...
  • Rescuers race against time...
  • War Zone: Gangs do battle in streets with machetes over food...
  • U.S. military mobilizes thousands...
  • Shantytown Stands as City Crumbles...
  • Survivors Flee Haiti's Ruined Capital...
  • Haiti's Streets Called 'Tinderbox' as Hunger, Thirst and Anger Grows...

Fortunately, for the U.S., if such an earthquake occurs, the government and the population are much better prepared to deal with such a crisis. That is not to say that some of these events above won’t happen even in a U.S. earthquake. These anticipated events are something that needs to be taken into consideration when preparing and planning your family’s contingency efforts.

In the U.S., we are fortunate to have viable, multi-level government organizations that do plan for such events. Additionally, we have enormous infrastructure support with failover capabilities and quality resources that can be brought to bear quickly. However, resources and infrastructure support are only one part of the mitigated solution. Preparedness on the part of government agencies and individuals is the other factor that limits the damage and loss to be suffered and the rate of recovery.


Haiti Building Damage

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