It’s another day at work. You are sitting at your desk when, without any warning, you are spilled out of your chair onto the floor. The entire building is shaking and swaying violently. Items are falling off of shelves everywhere as coworkers scream. You have the good sense to try to make your way under a desk as items continue to fall. You hold on tightly as the shaking continues. There is a disturbing groan coming from the building as the violent motion seems as if it will never end.

Then, as quickly as it began, the tremor stops. People catch their breath and survey the damage. You make your way to a window overlooking the city. It is an unworldly scene as fires rage and buildings lay toppled. There has been a major earthquake.

Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon that can decimate cities and kill countless people in a very short amount of time. To better prepare ourselves for this phenomenon, we need to first understand what is going on. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an earthquake is the result of two blocks of the earth suddenly slipping past one another. The surface where they slip is called the fault plane. The location below the earth’s surface where the quake starts is the hypocenter, and the location above it on the surface is called the epicenter.

This shifting of massive parts of the Earth is akin to violently shaking a table with items on it. Due to the intensity of some quakes, many buildings are simply shaken apart. Their collapse, resulting in subsequent fires and other dangers, claim lives by the scores. An average of 10,000 people a year die because of earthquakes around the world. The massive earthquake in Tohoku, Japan, in 2011 is still fresh in many people’s minds. The massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 18,000 people, destroyed many parts of northeast Japan, caused a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant and racked up over $220 billion in damage. Similarly devastating quakes in Haiti and Nepal have raised the recent death toll attributed to these natural disasters to staggering heights.

While these countries may seem to be a world away, the U.S. is prone to earthquakes as well. In fact, Kathryn Schulz’s recent article “The Really Big One” in The New Yorker suggests that the Pacific Northwest is ripe for a major earthquake. Schulz stated, “In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.”

Quake Prep 101

As is the case with any destructive natural phenomenon, the best we can do is prepare for the worst. If you live in an earthquake zone, you should make efforts to “quake prep” your home. This includes evaluating your home for potential dangers such as heavy shelves that can fall as well as bookcases and the like. You can secure these items with flexible fasteners, such as nylon straps, or with closed hooks, or by relocating them away from beds and seating, to lower shelves or to cabinets with latched doors. Ensure that plumbers have installed flexible connectors on all gas appliances.

Another constant in this setting is the need for a good emergency kit. A serious survival kit should include:

  • Water:  Keep an emergency supply of portable water for drinking and hygiene that you can take with you.
  • Non-Perishable Food: High-calorie items like food bars serve this need well as they are watertight.
  • Hand-Crank Radio: Some models can serve as a radio as well as a charger for cell phones and a basic light.
  • Flashlight: Choose a light that has a rugged body and lens.
  • Extra Batteries: It is important that you maintain your emergency kit and replace old batteries. They lose power even while sitting on the shelf.
  • Emergency Charger: The ability to communicate with emergency personnel or family is crucial. They are a priceless addition to your kit.
  • First-Aid Kit: Make sure to include essentials such as bandages, antibacterial wipes, aspirin, gauze and athletic tape. It should also include any prescription medications.
  • Multi-Purpose Tool: These devices provide many tools in one small package.
  • Hygiene Kit: Include personal and sanitation items for everyone in the family.
  • Essential Documents: This includes copies of your deeds, birth certificates, Social Security cards and passports.
  • Clothes: Take at least one change of clothes that can easily fit into a backpack. Rain gear should be included as well.
  • Cash: Banks and automatic teller machines will probably be unreliable because of power outages.

Create Safe Space

Keeping a cool head during an earthquake can in many cases determine if you are injured or even killed. offers a wide variety of information on dealing with earthquakes and suggests these steps during a quake.

Stay where you are until the shaking stops. Do not run outside. Do not get in a doorway, as this does not provide protection from falling or flying objects, and you may not be able to remain standing. Instead, drop down onto your hands and knees so the earthquake doesn’t knock you down. Drop to the ground before the earthquake drops you.

Cover your head and neck with your arms to protect yourself from falling debris. If you are in danger from falling objects but can move safely, crawl for additional cover under a sturdy desk or table. If there is low furniture or an interior wall or corner nearby and the path is clear, these may also provide some additional cover. Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as light fixtures or furniture. Stay where you are until the shaking stops.

There will be a great deal of chaos and confusion following an earthquake. Once the shaking stops, leave the structure and move to an open space. Avoid going back into buildings because aftershocks are likely. If you are trapped in a building, take care to move around as little as possible. If you have a cell phone, you can call or text for help. If 911 circuits are down, then send a text or call someone. Relay your location and have them contact authorities for help. You should look for a pipe or other hard object that you can use to tap on a wall or floor. This can help alert rescue workers to your location.

Once you are free, it is important to be careful regarding your surroundings. Many times, city water will become contaminated and electrical lines may be down. There is also a chance of flooding and even tsunamis because of earthquakes. Check water, gas and electric lines for damage. If any are damaged, shut off the valves. Check for the smell of gas. If you smell it, open all the windows and doors, leave immediately and report it to the authorities. Stay aware and listen to emergency messages.

Officials will establish shelters and assistance points. It is always wise to go there because it is also a place where friends and family can find out what your status is. Check in with the people running the shelter and give them your name and address. This will help in recovery efforts if they know they do not need to search your home or office. Most importantly, continue to keep a cool head and be patient. Emergency crews will be working feverishly to save those in grave danger. With the scope of damage that follows a major earthquake, it can take an extended amount of time for sufficient resources to make their way to the site.

Worldwide Disaster Drill

The Southern California Earthquake Center hosts an event each year called The Great Shake Out. This is an event where over 13 million people around the world take part in a massive earthquake drill. The SCEC is a community of over 600 scientists, students and others at over 60 institutions worldwide headquartered at the University of Southern California. SCEC was established to develop a comprehensive understanding of earthquakes in Southern California and elsewhere, and to communicate useful knowledge for reducing earthquake risk. This is a great way for communities and individuals to practice dealing with a major disaster. The simple fact is that education is one of the best ways to protect lives and property during an earthquake. By taking the opportunity to test or develop an earthquake plan, you greatly improve not only your own safety but that of loved ones as well. This year’s Shake Out was scheduled for 10:15 a.m. on October 15, 2015. Visit

Get Quake Smart

The Small Business Association estimates that 75 percent of organizations without a continuity plan will fail within three years of a disaster. The unpredictability of earthquakes and the impact tremors can have on businesses can be devastating. Therefore, it is important for business owners to take steps to the ensure safety of their employees and customers. Get prepared by joining the QuakeSmart Community Resilience Program created by FEMA and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH). Through this program, business owners can identify risks, develop plans of action to reduce potential injury and property damage and take part in the benefits of being a member of the QuakeSmart Community. For more information, visit FEMA

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Winter 2016 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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