Anyone who lives in California knows that we’re always at risk of a quake. Yet without an earthquake “season” or any reliable way to predict one, it’s easy to put the possibility out of your mind.

In fact, a recent Esurance study found that most of us are wildly unprepared for any kind of natural disaster.

So, in honor of National Preparedness Month, here are some things everyone should do to get ready for an earthquake.

7 tips for earthquake preparedness

1. Make a plan

Look for the best places to take cover in each room of your home, ideally under a sturdy table or desk. Figure out how you’ll communicate with your family if you’re separated during an earthquake (it’s a good idea to designate an out-of-town relative or friend to call, since local phone systems may be out or overloaded). Hold an earthquake drill to make sure everyone in your household knows what to do.

2. Check for structural weaknesses in your property

A foundation that isn’t properly anchored or reinforced may not hold up in a large quake. Other potential problems include homes with unreinforced masonry walls or on steep hillsides. FEMA offers tips on checking for weaknesses, but you should have a professional inspection done as well. Retrofitting your home before a quake is generally far less expensive than repairing it after.

3. Put together emergency kits

A large quake can disrupt water, electricity, and other vital services for days, so it’s important to have disaster supplies stocked and easily accessible at all times. Ideally, you should have 2 portable kits (one for your home and one for your car), plus a larger household kit.

Your smaller kits should be easy to carry if you evacuate and should contain:

  • Bottled water and high-calorie snacks
  • Spare medications and eyeglasses/contact lenses
  • A first-aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Copies of your I.D. and other important documents
  • A flashlight and extra batteries
  • A sturdy pair of shoes
  • An emergency whistle to help rescuers find you

Your larger kit is intended to hold supplies for at least 3 days. A large (but still moveable) waterproof bin works well. This kit should contain:

  • Several gallons of bottled water (one per person per day)
  • Non-perishable food and a can opener
  • Wrenches for turning off gas and water valves
  • Warm clothes, blankets, extra socks, and work gloves
  • A battery-powered or hand-crank-powered radio
  • A flashlight and extra batteries
  • Pet food and leashes or harnesses
  • Copies of important documents

You should also keep a pair of sturdy shoes and a flashlight next to every bed.

4. Secure items in your home

In the 1994 Northridge quake, 55 percent of injuries were caused by falling objects. To help prevent this, ensure your water heater is firmly strapped to the wall and attach heavy bookcases, dressers, and appliances to wall studs. Use closed hooks to hang pictures and mirrors. Place heavier items on lower shelves and hold small objects in place with museum putty. (This also works if you have curious cats.) Latches on kitchen cabinets will help keep dishes and cooking/cleaning supplies from tumbling out.

5. Find out where shut-off valves are located

After a quake, it might be necessary to turn off your gas or electricity. Know where to find your outside gas valve and main fuse box or circuit breaker. If your gas company recommends it, consider installing an automatic shut-off valve that responds to seismic activity.

6. Know if you’re in a tsunami hazard zone

If you are, map out and practice a safe escape route to higher ground.

7. Consider additional insurance coverage

Most homeowners and renters policies don’t cover earthquake damage. If you live in an earthquake zone, it’s a good idea to get earthquake insurance along with your standard coverage. Now’s also a good time to do an inventory of your possessions and their approximate value — once you’ve made the list, keep it in a safe place either online or outside your home.

What to do during an earthquake

Growing up, I was always told to stand in a doorway during a quake. Now we know that’s not the safest place to be — it’s much better to duck under something sturdy, such as a table or desk. When the shaking begins, drop to your hands and knees, get beneath the shelter, and hold onto it. (Your shelter should be stable enough not to topple over and strong enough to protect you from falling objects or debris.)

If there isn’t a desk or table nearby, get on the floor next to an interior wall away from tall furniture or cabinets and cover your head and neck with your hands.

If you’re in bed, remain there and use your pillow to protect your head.

And if you’re inside, stay inside. Many earthquake injuries are caused by glass, masonry, or architectural details falling from damaged buildings. If you’re outside, stay outside and avoid power lines, trees, and the exterior walls of buildings.

What to do after an earthquake

If you’re in a tsunami hazard zone and the shaking was severe and lasted more than 20 seconds, quickly get to higher ground or inland. Otherwise, there’s no need to evacuate unless your building or the surrounding area is badly damaged and poses a threat.

Search your home for broken glass and other hazards, and check to see that your family, pets, and neighbors are safe. Use a flashlight to search, rather than candles or matches.

You should also watch for and put out any small fires (a common occurrence after big quakes). If you smell gas, shut off your main valve. (Only the gas company should turn it back on — don’t try to do it yourself). And remember to use caution when opening cabinets or closets.

Text or call your out-of-town contact to let them know you’re ok. After that, avoid using the phone so lines stay clear for emergencies.

If you’re trapped by debris, cover your nose and mouth to keep from inhaling dust. Use your cell phone to call for help if possible. Alert rescuers to your location by blowing a whistle or tapping loudly on a wall or pipe at regular intervals.

And, of course, be ready for aftershocks. They can be quite strong and may continue for days or even weeks after a major quake.

Protect your property

Now that you know how to prepare for an earthquake, make sure you’re safeguarded against other hazards like theft, fire, storms, and vandalism.  Our car, homeowners, and renters coverage can give you the protection you need. Get a quote today.

Not scared enough yet? Check out the scariest faultlines in the U.S. — and then get you natural disaster to-do list.



Safe and smart | Home safety


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.