The Survivalist

How To Survive an Earthquake

If you do not live on the Pacific Rim, feel free to skip this first paragraph. Four-fifths of the world’s major earthquakes occur on the volatile tectonic belt that includes California, Japan, coastal China, Indonesia, and Mexico, which means that anyone living there and not seriously preparing for a major earthquake (little brother, I’m talking to you) is a gambler who likes to lose big bets. At some point in your lifetime, at least one Big One is likely to strike somewhere in your region, killing thousands—maybe tens of thousands. This is well-known by everyone, but most of the reporting has neglected to point out just how easy it is to prepare yourself for one of the planet’s most reliable sequels. Isn’t it worth a few hours’ time and a few hundred bucks to dramatically improve your family’s chances of living through it?

More on that preparation in a moment. First, let’s move eastward over the United States, because the real surprise about earthquakes is how exposed-but-oblivious the rest of us are. Everyone knows about the Great San Francisco Quake of 1906. But how many know that in 1811 and 1812, Missouri and Tennessee experienced three grand earthquakes larger than any ever recorded in California? * In addition, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and South Carolina have all recorded quakes greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale. I, for one, was surprised to learn that every state in the union has experienced at least one minor earthquake. (One suburb of Cleveland, for example, has been shaking all year long.)

Perhaps the most vulnerable place in the nation right now is New York City, which turns out to be the third-most seismically active region east of the Mississippi. Geologists estimate a 20 percent to 40 percent chance of a significant earthquake in the next 50 years in New York, and they make a special point to say that a major quake is also a real possibility. New Yorkers don’t worry about earthquakes, but we should—particularly those of us who own property here. What has experts especially concerned is the city’s alarmingly high ratio of likelihood-to-preparedness. The vast majority of buildings in New York, including my own brownstone and thousands just like it in my Brooklyn neighborhood, are not built to withstand significant quakes. Boston, by contrast, which faces roughly the same risk, is in much better structural shape. (New York does require earthquake-resistant design in all new buildings.)

Most earthquakes are the result of a sudden “elastic rebound” of energy, a release of stress built up over time between tectonic plates way down below. Think of a stretched rubber band suddenly snapping. In a quake, two kinds of waves are released, and the ground can move in any number of ways—it can roll, shake side to side, thrust up and down, tear open, liquefy, sink in, or slide away. The shaking might last just a few seconds or as long as a few minutes and, as everyone now knows, can be followed by a tsunami, which is essentially a giant wave caused by an underwater earthquake. Consequences can include flying glass and other objects, building collapse, twisted roads, fires, floods, release of hazardous materials, and, of course, the apocalyptic favorite: people swallowed up by large holes in the Earth.

So, what’s the Survivalist’s earthquake strategy? First, consider a warning device.  Tradition suggests bringing home a dozen weasels or keeping your eye on a pool of catfish. But since scientists have never been able to confirm any reliable animal mechanism for earthquake prediction, you may be better off plunking down $25 on the new and reputable Quake Alarm, a smoke-detector-sized device that plugs into your wall and sounds an alarm at the first sign of the faster P-waves, which arrive just before the more destructive S-waves. At best, it will give you only a few seconds’ advance warning, but that could be enough time to get out of the house or at least to a safer spot.

Next, identify those safer spots. It’s not in your kitchen or garage—those are generally the most dangerous rooms in the house. Windows, big appliances, and large wall objects are also to be avoided, as are fireplaces and walls with masonry veneer. Assume that anything unattached or loosely attached will hurtle through the air toward your forehead. Bookshelves, glass-framed art, cabinets above waist level—all bad. (In the silver-lining department, a severe earthquake is an excellent opportunity to get rid of that chandelier you’ve always hated.) Seek unadorned hallways. Arches or doorways provide extra structural stability. If possible, climb underneath a sturdy desk or table and hold onto the legs for the duration of the quake. (If you are driving, it’s best to stop the car and stay in it. If you are outside, stay outside and keep clear of buildings, tall trees, and power lines.)

Finally, gather emergency supplies and consider some battening-down. Flashlights should be at the ready, as should several fire extinguishers, a good first-aid kit, a radio, and a reserve supply of food, water, and essential medicines—a bare minimum of 72 hours’ worth. Don’t overlook the water. In the aftermath of a major quake, you can expect to be on your own and without clean water, power, and groceries for some time.

A quick walk through your home will reveal countless objects that a moderate earthquake could transform into dangerous sorties. The good news is, it’s cheap and easy to eliminate many of those hazards right now. Water heaters can easily be strapped in place—this is absolutely critical. Gas lines can be fitted with automatic seismic shut-off valves or should at least be located and turned off as quickly as possible after a quake. Shelves and other tall furniture can be secured to the wall.

If you own your home, you should also seriously consider two more significant measures:

1. Earthquake insurance—which turns out to be a lot more useful if you buy it before an earthquake. (Insurance companies report a flood of new policies immediately after each major disaster.)2. Securing your house more strongly to its foundation. This may not be nearly as expensive at it sounds and will quite possibly save your house from a total loss in a severe quake. Fastening a few beams to concrete isn’t such a big deal; it’s another thing entirely to lift up an entire house that has slid off of its foundation.

More good earthquake survival info here and here. There are no guarantees in disaster preparedness, but earthquake planning is relatively easy, cheap, and effective, so it makes for a nice introduction to survivalism of all kinds.

Click here for the essential survival shopping list. Next: How to survive a subway or skyscraper attack.

Correction, September 6, 2006: The piece originally pegged the dates of the huge Missouri/Tennessee earthquakes as 1911 and 1912. In fact, the quakes occurred in 1811 and 1812. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)