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They arrive without warning, and they can turn your life upside down. They are earthquakes.

Not only should you have a plan before they strike, but it’s imperative to have a plan for afterward, too, especially because you may find yourself stunned and wondering what just happened. But you can’t wait long after the ground stops shaking.

“Rules are deadly,” says Patrick Corcoran, Coastal Hazards Outreach Specialist and professor at Oregon State University. “Look around with a prepared eye, but you must realize that to be able to execute a plan, you must anticipate the unpredictable.”

If you live in earthquake country, you should always be acutely aware of your surroundings, Corcoran advises.

“The chances of being at your home, with your prepared survival kit, and against an interior wall are small,” he says. “All plans go out the window at this point.”

Which is why it’s critical to have the plan in place. “Think of escaping an earthquake or tsunami in terms of music,” Corcoran says. “Classical music traditions plan linearly and follow defined paths, while jazz music uses a handful of principles based on what is in front of you. Use what you have in front of you to survive.”

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“GOTCHA” HAZARDS TO AVOID

While most of us envision a post-earthquake environment to consist of dangers such as falling rubble and chasms in the highways, the more realistic dangers are things you may not have even considered. Knowing what the hazards are following a quake will potentially save your life.

“It wasn’t the earthquake that killed people in San Francisco during the 1906 disaster,” Corcoran says. “The fires are what killed the majority of and the fires couldn’t be put out.”

Indeed, fire is the most common hazard after an earthquake, FEMA indicates on its Web site. The agency recommends keeping a fire extinguisher in your home, particularly if you live in a quake zone.

In addition to fires, you should watch out for the other “gotcha hazards” that pop up after an earthquake, which are usually more deadly than the actual quake. If you are inside during the quake, your first order of business should be to protect your head from falling objects. Look around you for
loose materials and try to move outside to a natural area free from debris or dangers. Help those who are injured or trapped and get them to safety.

In addition, you should ensure that nothing toxic spilled inside of your home during the quake. Clean up any bleach, gasoline or other flammable liquids right away. But if you smell natural gas or other strong chemical fumes, leave immediately, FEMA advises.

Don’t ever assume something is stable if it doesn’t look damaged. Once outside, you are not necessarily safe from harm.

“Downed power lines and gas leaks are real killers after the tremors stop,” says Corcoran, “and landslides are particularly bad if you live in a hilly region.”

If you live near a beach, stay as far from the water as possible to protect yourself from any potential tsunamis, which could happen within minutes following an earthquake.

 

CHECK YOUR UTILITIES

Damage to these power lines and house was seen in the aftermath of an earthquake

“Downed power lines and gas leaks are real killers after the tremors stop.”

One threat that is close to everyone’s home is the risk of your utilities wreaking havoc on your safety. If you hear any hissing sounds, leave your building and turn off the gas at the main valve if possible, FEMA advises. Call your gas company after you are safely away from the property.

In addition, if you smell burning or hot insulation, turn off the electricity at your circuit breaker. Avoid any down, sparking, or frayed wires or power lines, and do not step in water if live wires are nearby.

During a quake, plumbing lines are also likely to come loose. If you see any sewage or water leaks, avoid running water and call a plumber.

 

Kristen Webb-Hollering

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2012 print issue of American Survival Guide.