5 Must-Do Actions for Surviving an Earthquake

An earthquake can occur anywhere, so it's important to know what to do before it happens.

During an earthquake, it’s important to know the basic steps to take to save your life, whether you’re at home, in the car or on the street. 

Many Americans associate earthquakes with the West coast, but the reality is an earthquake can occur anywhere in the U.S., which is why everyone should learn how to survive an earthquake — it’s a matter of knowing and practicing the lifesaving steps you’ll need to take when the ground start to move.

An earthquake can start slow and grow in intensity in the span of a few seconds, or come on suddenly with a jolt out of nowhere; regardless, there is not a lot of time to prepare beforehand. Knowing what to do beforehand can help reduce fear and confusion when a person needs to act.

#1 Preparation is Key

All Americans should have a disaster preparation kit in their homes that can sustain them in the event of a fire, flood, tornado, hurricane or other emergency; an earthquake is no different. Further, each person should have their own ‘Go Bag.’

A survival bag should include:

  • Enough water and non-perishable food for a person for three days
  • A change of clothes
  • A first-aid kit
  • Any necessary medications or medical supplies
  • Any important documents, such as identity or social security cards, birth certificates, homeowners insurance information, medical cards, etc.

In the event you or your family may need to evacuate your home, a shelter will often not provide food or water, and you will be expected to provide your own. The easiest way to do this is to have these supplies ready before the event takes place.

Another important part of preparing is knowing — and practicing — the following steps. Learn more about drills at home, at schools and in other location on Shakeout.org.

#2 Stay Where You are During an Earthquake

While many people’s first instinct is to run, it’s actually safer to stay where you are and hunker down when an earthquake occurs.

If you are indoors during an earthquake, be sure to drop to the ground, cover your head and hold on to something stable.

Image: CDC

In a Building

  • Drop: When an earthquake strikes while you are indoors, immediately drop to the ground — except if you are in bed, which is widely considered a safer place to be. This prevents an injury from being knocked to the ground by the force of the shaking, and also allows you to more easily maneuver someplace safe.
  • Cover: Protect your head and body under something sturdy, such as a desk. If nothing is available, stick close to an interior wall, and cover your head with your arms. Keep away from glass windows and doors that could potentially shatter during the earthquake.
  • Hold On: Grab on to whatever shelter or large, stabilizing item you can and don’t let it go until the shaking stops.

Shakeout.org, which has more than 52 million registered participants and numerous partners, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Geological Survey, offers numerous earthquake prep resources and organizes earthquake drills worldwide on the third Thursday of each October, recommends the following procedures if you are in bed when an earthquake hits:

On the Road

  • Pull over as soon as possible, away from power lines, overpasses and light poles as much as possible, and wait for the ground to stop moving.
  • Keep your radio turned on in the event emergency instructions are issued.
  • Be aware of hazards on the road once you begin driving again, and be prepared to stop in the case of an aftershock.

Outside

  • If you are outside when an earthquake hits, move as quickly and safely as you can away from exterior building walls, power lines and other hazards.
  • Once in a safe area, stay low to the ground and wait for the shaking to cease.
#3 Move to Safety as Soon as Possible

After an earthquake, it’s important to move away from potential hazards as quickly as you safely can.

  • Get outside, if possible, and get to a clearing away from downed power lines and piles of debris. Use the stairs rather than an elevator, if possible. Aftershocks and tremors could cause more damage, so stay away from exterior walls.
  • Do not attempt to move anything; wait for help to arrive.
  • Drive away from debris and other hazards if you are in a car. Be aware of downed power lines, cracked roads or damaged bridges.
#4 Be Prepared for Earthquake Aftershocks

Aftershocks, smaller earthquakes, as well as landslides and tsunamis depending on location can occur after a larger earthquake.

An aftershock can occur at any time in the minutes, days, weeks and months after an initial quake, depending on its size. Higher magnitude earthquakes can produce aftershocks that are quite severe, so be aware that another quake could occur while you are recovering from the initial shaking. Once you have moved to safety, stay there until you are sure it is safe to leave.

#5 Make Sure Your City is Prepared for an Earthquake

Having the proper emergency management tools and skills in place is one way to neutralize the damage stemming from a natural disaster like an earthquake.

Individuals, families, businesses, schools, colleges, government agencies and organizations are all invited to register for the annual Great Shake Out. Local governments can plan drills to prepare for earthquake.

In British Columbia, Canada, the Emergency Preparedness for Industry & Commerce Council (EPICC), a non-profit society designed to help businesses prepare for emergencies, provides a six question risk assessment guide for leaders to score their company’s disaster preparedness procedures.

Ready.gov and Dwayne Johnson have a message to motivate earthquake preparedness:

About the author

Rachel Engel

Rachel Engel

Author Rachel Engel is also Associate Editor of Military1.com. She is based in Kansas.