You’re in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, filled with ordinary daily preoccupations: making coffee, getting your kids ready for school, being stuck in traffic, hoping you can make it home at a decent hour. Without warning, there’s a sound like the sudden passing of a high-speed train — not quite an explosion, sharper than a roar or rumble, and then you’re thrown violently, first one way and then another, slamming into furniture or walls or anything near.
The sound, the vibration, the wild uncontrolled motion keeps on for half a minute, a minute, an eternity, and then there’s a crashing, tearing noise and things around you start collapsing, ripping into dusty shards of wood, masonry, and glass. Chunks of walls, the contents of shelves and cupboards, and razor-edged pieces of your windows litter the floor. The tang of ozone and the musk of natural gas begin to spread, and the initial shock turns to dread as you realize fire may be next. What happened?
You’ve just experienced an earthquake, one of nature’s most frightening demonstrations of power. And while most people associate earthquakes with coastal areas (especially California and Japan), the truth is that earthquakes can occur nearly anywhere, and almost always do so without warning. And as with most other life-threatening catastrophes, it isn’t enough to survive the event itself—you need a plan to survive the after-effects.
In the case of earthquakes, these nearly always include more earthquakes, which can be devastating to an area already damaged and weakened by the initial shock.
Why Does the Earth Quake?
An earthquake occurs when two plates of the Earth’s crust, which have been pressing against one another for years, decades, or centuries, suddenly reach the point at which the pressure can no longer be contained. The plates move suddenly—either by slipping alongside each other, by sliding over and under, by buckling, or by simply fracturing—releasing astounding amounts of energy.
How much energy? An earthquake with a magnitude of 3.5 on the Richter scale, which is roughly the point at which humans can feel the motion, has an energy yield equivalent to 2.7 metric tons of TNT. (And a short note on the Richter scale: each increase of one point on the Richter scale releases ten times as much energy as the lower of the two. So an earthquake of 4.0 releases ten times what a 3.0 quake releases; a 5.0 releases 100 times what the 3.0, and a 6.0 releases 1,000 times, or roughly the yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.)
Unlike the air blast of a nuclear explosion, however, much of the energy from an earthquake is released into the ground, and the sheer mass of the earth absorbs a lot of the energy. (Think of the difference between a compact car hitting a pedestrian versus a compact car hitting a cement truck.) But that doesn’t mean the damage isn’t serious. The release of energy in an earthquake causes shock waves, some of which travel through the ground, others of which travel on the surface. While both are powerful, it’s the surface waves that cause the most damage, because they impart their energy into objects on the surface—such as homes, office buildings, roads, and other structures.
Unlike the single blast of an explosion (nuclear or otherwise), earthquakes nearly always come with a cluster of aftershocks— minor adjustments made by those plates in the earth as a result of the initial point of fracture, called the epicenter. Like ice cracking on the surface of a frozen pond, that first break puts a strain on other weak spots near the epicenter, and this strain, in the days and weeks following the quake, can cause those weak spots to slip as well. Normally, aftershocks are less powerful than the initial quake, but the largest can still reach about 80 percent of the original release. Occasionally, an aftershock can exceed the earthquake itself (as happened in the 1987 Whittier quake near Los Angeles). And because those aftershocks hit an area that’s already experienced potentially massive structural damage from the initial quake, they can occasionally be far more devastating than the first shock.
Make it Through the First Quake
The first rule, as in any disaster, is “don’t panic.” Because earthquakes happen without warning signs, the fear response from the sudden violent movement of the ground beneath your feet can be terrifying. (How terrifying? In the 1971 Sylmar quake in Southern California, stories circulated about people who, awakened from a deep sleep at about 6 a.m., leapt from their beds and ran down the street naked—only to realize a block or so later.)
More practically, if you’re inside during a quake, stay close to an interior wall, preferably under some sturdy object (solid table or desk). Most important, stay away from objects that can fall on you—as I did, if inadvertently, in the February, 1971 Sylmar quake (magnitude: 6.6), while I was in high school. At about 6 a.m., I was awoken by what I thought, in my half-asleep state, was a hydrogen bomb: my bed shook, seeming to throw me back and forth while the world roared and thundered for about a minute. I thought I saw the wall-mounted heater torn off the wall (it turned out not to be damaged). Because I was still in bed, I curled up into a ball in the center of the bed and pulled my two pillows and blankets over me to provide some cushion in the event of debris.
After the shaking ended, I saw that a large combat knife (even at that age I had an interesting collection of weapons) that I’d hung over my bed was no longer on the wall. I checked later and found it had fallen between my bed and the wall. Which suggests a bonus survival tip: don’t hang heavy, edged objects over the bed.
If you’re outside, stay clear of trees, poles, buildings (especially glass storefronts, as glass shattering during an earthquake can travel some distance) and especially power lines. My own experience with the 1989 Loma Prieta quake happened while I was in my front yard; I quickly estimated the height of the nearest light post and put myself a safe distance from both the post and from the glass that framed the entry way of my house. It was unnerving to feel the ground bounce and sway beneath me; it felt as though I was standing in a moving bus driving over a rutted dirt field. I rode it out, and was fortunate that the glass did not break.
If you’re in your vehicle, pull over to a clear location and stop. Avoid bridges and underpasses—sadly, the Loma Prieta quake proved how dangerous they can be in a major shaker. If a power line falls on your car, the Red Cross recommends that you stay in the car until emergency personnel arrive to remove it. As contrary as that may sound to the nature of our readership, the science behind it is clear: the tires of your car insulate you from any electrical current that makes contact with the car’s body, but if you step out of the car the current can flow through you to ground and electrocute you. So prepare to survive by stopping as far as possible from overhead wires.
Survive the Collateral Damage
We’ve already discussed electrical wires, but gas lines and water mains often break in a major earthquake. Much of the damage in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake came about due to fires that spread in the wake of the tremors; some estimates claim that 90 percent of the damage was due to post-quake fires.
Your job at this point, then, is to assess immediate risks to yourself and your family. Which means that the first thing you do after the shaking stops: make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes. If there is broken glass, wood or masonry debris, or some other hazards, a pair of shoes can make the difference between being able to protect yourself or being a casualty. (If you’re a parent, your first instinct of course will be to run and check on the kids, but slip on a pair of shoes first. I always keep at least one pair of shoes by my bed, but then I’ve lived through three of the four major California earthquakes of the last 40 years. I recommend it, especially compared to the alternative.)
“At about 6 a.M., I was awoken by what I thought, in my half-asleep state, was a hydrogen bomb…”
If you’re at home, it’s best at this point to do two simultaneous inventories: locate your family members while looking for damage that can kill or injure you. If you’re not at home, assess the risks around you, again focusing on fire, electrical wires, broken glass and other debris. If you are inside a building, chances are good the power is out, but not necessarily: in the 1987 Whittier quake, we had full electricity and cable TV, so we were able to monitor the status of the city. However, in the 1971 and 1989 quakes, electricity was out for several days in our area and for longer in the places hit even harder. We’ll discuss that more in the Gear section, later in this article.
Once you’ve located family and identified immediate threats, it’s time to concentrate on surviving the aftershocks. This starts with basic triage: is anyone injured? Are your gas or water lines ruptured? Find and distribute the items in your emergency kit and refer to your plan (again, we’ll go over both of these in the Gear section). The moments during and after an earthquake are not the time to make a plan or put together a kit! You should know exactly where to go to turn off the gas or water, and exactly what tools to use (it’s a 17mm open-ended wrench in my house, and it’s in the third drawer of my tool chest — where is yours?)
Other threats may not be as obvious. Brian Falstaff rode out the initial Loma Prieta shaker, but while assessing damage to his Ben Lomond home—less than a mile from the epicenter—he noticed that his chimney had major gaps, and then realized that the upper eight to 10 feet of it had actually been broken off from the base and rotated 90 degrees. This meant that another aftershock might cause the chimney—remember, eight to 10 feet of bricks—to fall through the roof, into the house.
So Brian looped a section of rope around the upper, detached section of the chimney, hooked the other end to the trailer hitch on his truck, and—from a safe distance—pulled the chimney down into the open space at the side of the house. One of Brian’s neighbors noticed him doing this, and together they pulled down the similarly detached chimney on his house. By mid-afternoon, they had worked with a number of neighbors with similar problems, preventing further injuries and property damage.
But a final risk from a major earthquake can be flood, especially if a reservoir is threatened or damaged by the tremors. In the 1971 quake, damage was detected to the Van Norman Dam, an old earthenware dam that formed the retaining wall for a huge reservoir at the north end of the Valley (near the epicenter). There was serious concern that if the retaining wall was breached, the Valley would be flooded with huge damage to property and potential loss of life. For this, you want to be sure to monitor local news and first-responder communication.
Stories of Survival
If positioning yourself in a safe place like a doorjamb or beside a bed is not possible, then at least choose somewhere with soft objects, as did Gail Case in the October, 1987 Loma Prieta earthquake (magnitude: 6.9). Gail had been shopping in a Sunnyvale Babies ‘R Us at the moment the earthquake hit, and found herself in the middle of the store. The aisle to one side of her held cribs, changing tables, and shelves; to the other side, large packages of disposable diapers. Gail quickly reasoned that she stood a better chance of survival with the soft packs of diapers than with hard wooden furniture, so she rode out the quake being battered by packs of Pampers.
The most important thing to know in an earthquake survival situation is to stay away from windows. Xian Chapman of Reseda, Calif., had been feeling the effects of a winter case of the flu in January, 1994, so she dragged her pillow and blanket out to the couch in her living room to fall asleep watching TV instead of in her bed. A few hours before dawn, the San Fernando Valley suffered an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7—shattering her window and dropping all the glass onto her bed. The sight of long shards of razor-sharp glass embedded into her mattress haunt her to this day.
In The Past
The Great Alaska Quake, 1964
The highest magnitude of any earthquake measured on U.S. soil and the second largest ever recorded (9.2), the Alaska quake of March 27, 1964 killed 131 people—nine in the earthquake itself and 122 in the resulting tsunami.
Anchorage, located only about 120 miles from the epicenter, sustained the most damage and five of the deaths, with damage to or outright destruction of buildings within a 30-block area. The three-minute shock destroyed many schools, either through demolition in the initial quake or through landslide activity.
Landslides were responsible for much of the damage. The Turnagain Heights area of Anchorage experienced the worst of these landslides, resulting in three fatalities; furthermore, an area of approximately 130 acres suffered displacement, in which the ground breaks into blocks that lift, collapse, tilt and separate from one another. In other areas, vertical displacements lifted blocks of ground as much as 35 feet, or dropped as much as seven.
In the city of Seward, a 1,000-foot section of the waterfront slid into Resurrection Bay. As if the local tsunami wasn’t bad enough, the collapse of buildings and industry on the waterfront caused burning oil to be poured into the bay, and the tsunami carried the flaming oil across the surface of the water—followed by the main tsunami 20 minutes later. Seward suffered 13 fatalities as a result.
Because of Alaska’s coastline, the tsunami that resulted from this massive upheaval of the earth peaked in a wave recorded at more than 200 feet high. 106 people on the Alaska coast died from the tsunami; four campers on the beach at Newport, Oregon lost their lives, as did 13 Californians, while the property damage in Alaska, Oregon and California topped $95 million. The city of San Rafael, in San Francisco Bay rather than on the open ocean, sustained $600,000 in damage to the harbor and boats. (Amazingly, the estimated 10,000 people in San Francisco who lined up to see the tidal wave suffered zero fatalities.)
The earthquake and tsunami deaths from the 1964 quake resulted in the establishment, in 1967, of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alas.
While the Center’s primary goal is to provide tsunami warnings to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia in Canada (which had suffered $10 million in damage, though no loss of life, in the 1964 quake), it also provides earthquake data to anyone interested.
The New Madrid Earthquakes, 1811-12
Over the course of three months (December 1811 to February 1812), the community of New Madrid, Mo. was hit by three massive earthquakes: one at 7.5 and two at 7.7. But what is most significant about this earthquake (or cluster of earthquakes, if you will) is its location: more or less in the center of the continent, a long way from the coastlines and young-fold mountains normally associated with earthquakes. The New Madrid quakes remain the most powerful earthquakes to affect the eastern United States in recorded history.
At 2:15 a.m. local time, on the morning of December 16, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shook the northeast Arkansas/Missouri area. Reports of ground motion described as “most alarming and frightening” came from as far away as Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky; the shaking was sufficient to wake people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C. Houses were shaken, chimneys destroyed, and near the epicenter, dirt and water were thrown tens of feet into the air through liquefaction.
In New Bourbon, Mo., boatman John Bradbury, who was moored to a small island, later reported that “the perpendicular banks, both above us and below us, began to fall into the river in such vast masses, as to nearly sink our boat by the swell they occasioned.” Some five hours later, an aftershock of 7.0 rocked the area again, and again the East Coast felt the tremors. By daylight, Bradbury had totted up 27 separate shocks.
Then, at 9:15 on the morning of January 23, 1812, a 7.3-magnitude quake again shook the New Madrid area. For this event, the Ohio River was iced over, so there was little river traffic and few people to record the event, but those who were present reported warping of the ground, soil and rock being ejected, cracks and fissures forming, and landslides including caving in of stream and river banks.
The final event in this cluster struck at 3:45 a.m. on February 7, 1812, a 7.5-magnitude quake that occurred in several shocks. Contemporary reports put the last of these shocks as equal to the initial event the previous December; the town of New Madrid was leveled, and houses as far away as St. Louis were damaged severely, typically losing chimneys from the swaying of the earth. The Mississippi River even bore witness to the effect, with uplift along the fault resulting in the creation of temporary waterfalls at Kentucky Bend, and waves were observed traveling upstream. Finally, the creation of Reelfoot Lake when streams, in what is now Lake County, Tenn., were obstructed by the seismic activity.
Much of this gear is common to any emergency, and are probably already set up for your survival plan: food, water, light, communication, protection from exposure. But there are a few little tips I’ve picked up from decades in California. In order of importance:
First-aid kit. You should at a minimum be prepared to dress small wounds, both laceration and punctures, as well as fractures and sprains. It’s like buying a motorcycle helmet: you can get by with a $50 helmet if your head is only worth $50. But your kit needs to contain, as a bare minimum, disinfectant (alcohol, peroxide, hand sanitizer), gauze for making bandages, tape for sealing them, self-adhering tape for wrapping injured joints, tweezers, scissors, scalpel, and pain relief. If you can print out instructions on basic first aid techniques— how to make a butterfly bandage, and so forth— keep that in the first-aid kit.
In addition, if you live in an area where a reservoir might burst and flood your surroundings, groundwater may be contaminated so if you use a well, be prepared to use disinfectant tablets (or better yet boil any water you draw). If your water reserves are stored in sealed bottles (5-gallon jugs or equivalent), you won’t need this for drinking water, but it’s still a good idea to keep disinfectant/sanitizing chemicals on hand for other uses (washing clothes, dishes, and general cleanup).
Battery-operated radio (with spare batteries). Chances are your power will go out within seconds of the first tremor, and a battery-powered radio will let you follow announcements of the aftermath of the quake. Though power may not go out: after the initial shock of the 1987 Whittier quake, we still had power and were watching television when the first aftershock hit.
We were treated to the eerie sensation of seeing the aftershock hit the news studio, located about halfway between the epicenter and our home. We saw the newscasters scream and dive under the desk as their set fell apart on camera, lights falling and exploding as walls swayed and collapsed. I thought it must be akin to standing on the deck of a ship and watching a torpedo coming at me, knowing it would hit but not knowing how much damage it would do when it got there.
You should also consider a battery-operated cell phone recharger, not only to make calls to communicate with other family members, but for other reasons listed below.
Flashlights (plus spare batteries), matches, candles and camp stove. Never light a match until you’re certain you do not have a gas leak! But if you’ve done your triage from the previous section, you should know that you’re safe. One tip, especially if you have children: arrange for everyone in your household to have a keychain-style mini-flashlight, with a switch that allows it to stay on until turned off, and hang these from lanyards. We’re big fans of the Photon Micro-Light (available for around $10 from sources such as the Knife Center of the Internet), and try to have one on each keychain, plus extras in the emergency kit to put on lanyards.
The first advantage is that a mini-light on a lanyard puts a pool of light right where you need it: in front of your feet, so you can look out for debris, steps, or other dangers—and of course, so you can see your family members in the dark and damaged house. And second, many of these lights are available in multiple colors; if you color-code the lights, you’ll know who is coming down the hall or around the side of the house.
A diagram of where to turn off water, gas, and electricity to the house (that is, your master breaker box). Broken water mains can cause serious problems as water either undermines the foundation of your house or damages the structure itself. You should definitely have some pipe repair tape on hand, made to seal leaks and breaks in wet situations, for all kinds of home emergencies. The Fernco Pow-r-Wrap brand can be used under water, according to the instructions; I used it on a split pipe after a hard winter freeze and it’s effective and permanent when installed properly. This product is epoxy-impregnated tape packaged in a kit that includes the epoxy catalyst and plastic gloves for getting a tight seal with the tape. It sets in a few minutes and can make the difference between an uncomfortable mess and potentially terminal water damage on walls, floors and foundation. And remember, in an aftershock, weakened walls, floors and foundation may well mean injuries that could be prevented.
Again, if you have children: be sure to have some form of entertainment that does not involve electricity. In the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, our oldest daughter (about two at the time) wasn’t too afraid of the earth’s shaking and shuddering, but as her mom and I sat by the battery-powered radio listening to the early reports of collapsed bridges and freeway overpasses, our daughter got bored and kept bringing us entertainment: video cassettes, records (remember, it was 1989 and vinyl was still a thing). Books, card games, and other traditional activities will keep them entertained safely while you concentrate on tracking the external situation, securing the house and protecting your family.
Probably the most important thing, especially if you have children: know where the safety gear is, and make sure they understand its importance. We recently had our grandchildren staying with us for a month, and like all six-year-olds, Jack loved playing with our flashlights in the backyard at dusk. Early in the visit, I impressed on him the importance of keeping the flashlight in the same place, and made a “teachable moment” to get him to understand: we put his sister and grandmother in the kitchen, then after I showed Jack how to count drawers to where the flashlight is stored, I turned off all the lights. Jack counted the drawers, opened the right one, and took out the flashlight, to the cheers of his sister and grandmother. Jack enjoyed the attention, but the pride of accomplishment of having found the emergency light made the point that it has to be where it’s supposed to be.
An emergency scanner, or at least an app for your smartphone that acts as an emergency scanner, for listening to your local police, fire and rescue organization’s communications. This can provide you far more information about local conditions than the radio news, because you can listen in directly on first-responder radio transmissions.
I use a free app for Android called Scanner Radio, which has a number of settings including the ability to program in notifications so that if something new occurs, my phone will let me know. (It’s also useful when you hear sirens in your neighborhood and want to know whether or not the event they’re responding to is a risk to you or your family.) Of course, this all assumes that the cell towers aren’t taken out by the earthquake; portable handheld scanners are available for about $100 or slightly less, and don’t rely on cell signals or wifi which can be disrupted by a major earthquake event.
All this, of course, is on top of what you no doubt have stockpiled for a generic emergency: water, food, camping gear, and any protection you feel is necessary for the situation. Experience shows that in earthquakes, it’s generally the better part of human nature that comes to the surface, and neighbors help each other recover and protect themselves, as demonstrated my friends who eliminated the risk of falling chimneys. But either way, preparing for some of the specific risks presented by earthquakes (and their unpredictable aftershocks) can help you and yours come out in one piece … if not unshaken.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.