Those who live on the west coast of North America can expect a moderate to major earthquakewithin their lifetimes. The May 19, 2009 earthquake in Los Angeles provides a reality check for our level of earthquake preparedness. Surviving a major earthquake depends on knowing what to do before, during and after the shaking starts. We must avoid injury during the quake and possible tsunami, then cope with chaos and disruption until order is restored.
Before the Quake
Keep an appropriately stocked earthquake kit in your home, workplace/school, and vehicle. Learn as much first aid as you can, including your family members. Prearrange meeting places for family members - assume telephone contact is impossible. Prepare to experience traumatic situations. Enjoy the reassurance of being as prepared as you choose to be.
Earthquake proof your home, keeping in mind there are always limits to what is possible and practical. Some things help minimize financial risk - securing framed artwork and collectibles to the wall for example. Securing the hot water tank to the wall reduces the risk of being terribly scalded for a small cost. Properly secure heavy appliances and furniture. Structural retrofitting is often out of reach (although sometimes mandatory), but we can at least arm ourselves with knowledge about a buildings limitations.
Most schools are at a high level of earthquake preparedness and often have a "special" earthquake kit for each child. If there is, include a reassuring note along with a familiar stuffed animal, toy or book, and favorite snacks. If there isn't, encourage the school to implement this procedure.
During the Quake
Anyone who has experienced even a trivial earthquake will know this to be true: all preconceptions about knowing what to do evaporate instantly. An exact course of action must be rehearsed to become an automatic reflex, the same as fire evacuation rehearsals. Each person needs to know the hazards and safe areas of every room and area. Keep in mind how difficult and dangerous moving will be - immediately move away from danger but no further.
Inside, the safest areas are under heavy desks or tables, and hallways, corners, and arches - areas where the framing is strongest. During an earthquake, the fridge, stove and cupboards make the kitchen the most dangerous place to be. Large appliances can be thrown about quite violently. The entire contents of a kitchen can be on the floor within a couple of seconds. Move away from cabinets, shelves, washer and dryer, mirrors, windows, chandeliers - anything that may fall, move or break. The hot water tank, furnace, and heavy furniture should be bolted to the wall - but don't depend on it. Although doorways have strong framing, the door will swing violently and can deliver a painful injury at the very least. Even a minor injury can be a hindrance in the coming days of crisis.
Resist the temptation to run outside. People doing this are often killed by falling debris. Once the shaking stops, do go outside if your building is structurally compromised. Try to bring at least your mobile earthquake kit. Expect aftershocks. A pair of slip-on shoes under the bed will protect from inevitable broken glass and debris.
Pull over if you're driving, but never stop under hazards such as overpasses. We've all seen the collapsed Cypress Freeway after the 1989 Oakland earthquake. Blocking a road or bridge is also a very serious mistake.
If you are outside, get out into the open - away from buildings, power lines, and anything that can collapse on you. Falling trees, rocks and landslides are also common hazards.
Priority one is to survive the initial event. Then assist, where you can, with emergencies in your immediate vicinity.
You must know where the tsunami risk zones are in your area. If you are inside a risk zone, move out of it immediately. If you can, assist anyone who is having difficulty. Most at risk areas have signs which indicate when you are entering or leaving a tsunami zone. Many also have an "air raid" type of alert system. When traveling, you need to be aware of these areas. Local information is a key to survival.
Keep in mind that a tsunami is a series of waves and that the first one might not even be the biggest one. A strong aftershock may of course set a new tsunami into motion. Most of us know that a dramatically receding tide is a very bad time to collect fish and sea shells. Still, many fall victim to the spectacle. If you are caught in a wave, understand the most likely ways to die. Massive quantities of debris - including vehicles and buildings - crush victims. Each wave will eventually recede with huge force, carrying debris and people (exhausted and injured) far out to sea.
After the Quake
Leaking gas, electrical shorts and broken water pipes can turn the aftermath into a very deadly scenario. Know how to shut off utilities and have a flashlight and wrenches to do it with. Never light a match until the threat of gas is eliminated.
After a major earthquake, don't count on any substantial outside help - including emergency services - for a minimum of three days. Some areas may be isolated for longer due to destroyed infrastructure. Forget about electricity and telephones (cell phones might work, but only until the emergency batteries and generator fuel in transmitter towers run out). Initially, use phones for emergencies only. It is policy in many areas to get pay phones back into service first - keep a good amount of change accessible to take advantage.
With any luck your home is still usable - otherwise, try to salvage what you need and establish a "base camp" in a safer place. Turn on your portable radio and listen for information. Thankfully, anyone not with you will automatically know where to go.
If you live in an apartment you may or may not be allowed back inside. The importance of having a portable emergency kit near the exit cannot be over-emphasized. You won't starve to death in a few days, but food - especially hot food - is a huge boost to your mental and emotional situation. Water is a different matter altogether - a precious necessity that needs to be stored in quantity. Follow your local guidelines for quantities and types of supplies to stock your earthquake kit with.
As survivors of past earthquakes pass away, so do the painful memories. This fact ensures a fresh supply of vulnerable, ill-prepared people poised to re-learn the devastation. Thankfully, our society is more willing than ever before to prepare for and survive the inevitable. This latest California earthquake has provided us with another reminder that it's never too late to increase our earthquake preparedness.
Emergency Food Supplies
Approximate Needs — Four Adults for Seven Days
Foods in each category should be determined by family preferences.
- Twenty-eight gallons of water
- 4 1/2 lb. ready-to-eat cereals (make smart choices)
- 3 boxes of non-fat dry milk powder (each box making 8 qts. milk)
- 7 qts. canned 100% juice (varied-orange, pineapple, tomato, V-8)
- 2 – 16-oz. jars nut butter
- 4 – 6-oz. cans tuna in water
- 2 – 16-oz. cans salmon
- 15 – 16-oz. cans of varied beans (3 black, 3 kidney, 3 garbanzo, 2 reduced fat refried, 4 baked beans
- 24 oz. canned meat (chicken, beef, corned beef, light SPAM)
- 10 lbs. canned fruits (1 lb. cans-varied-applesauce, peaches, pears, apricots, pineapple, mixed)
- 14 lbs. canned vegetables-preferred reduced salt (1 lb. cans-tomatoes (varied), peas, green beans, corn, spinach)
- 2 – 8-oz. jars jam or jelly
- 2 loaves bread (preferably whole grain)
- 3 packages whole wheat or corn tortillas
- 4 – 10 oz. boxes crackers (varied-some whole grain-Triscuit, graham, etc.)
- 2 bags rice cakes (family-preferred flavor)
- 1 small jar mayonnaise (or individual packets of mayonnaise to equal 8 oz.)
- 2 – 15-oz. cans salsa
- Small can Parmesan cheese
- 8 oz. nuts- family choice
- 1 1/2 lb. raisins or other dried fruit
- 1 jar cheese spread
- 6 – 1-lb. cans pudding
- 16-oz. low fat Italian salad dressing
- Salt, pepper, mustard, catsup, dried onion and parsley, other seasonings, as desired
- 12 oz. canola oil
- Instant coffee (enough to make 56 cups of coffee)
- Hard candy, sugarless gum, cocoa, sugar
Source: Joyce M. Houston, M.A., R.D., Supervising Public Health Nutritionist, Humboldt County DHHS-Public Health Branch. May 2008.