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Recommended:   Earthquakes & Seismology,    Tsunami (Tidal Wave) Hazard,    Mass Wasting - Landslides & Debris Flows

Earthquake Preparedness

Earthquakes are one of a handful of natural disasters that occur virtually without warning. State-of-the-art earthquake prediction methods provide at best only vague probabilities of occurrence, with certainties measured in decades. Yet earthquakes take place every day; a year without a major, devastating quake in some part of the world is both fortunate and rare.


The vast majority of earthquakes are a natural consequence of plate tectonics, a mechanism through which the Earth’s crust has been broken into large plates riding on convection currents within the Earth’s fluid mantle. The plates, which are created along ocean ridges (sea floor spreading) and sink at their edges (subduction), do not move uniformly in either direction or speed; where they rub at their boundaries, tremendous stress is produced. The sudden release of this stress — the potential energy stored within deformed rock being converted into the kinetic energy of seismic waves — is what we call an earthquake. (For a more complete discussion of earthquake mechanisms and plate tectonics, visit our Earthquakes & Seismology page.)


Earthquake hazards are of worldwide concern. Governments have attempted to mitigate the disasterous effects of earthquakes by:
  • Funding earthquake research;
  • Establishing building codes based upon this research and current structural engineering models;
  • Identifying geologic formations and soil structures most susceptible to strong seismic shaking and limiting or banning construction in regions where liquefaction or strong ground shaking can occur;
  • Performing seismic retrofitting;
  • Supplying equipment and training to emergency responders and civil defense organizations to enable prompt and maximum response to the effects of an earthquake;
  • Creating public information resources and disaster planning venues (such as emergency evacuation routes) to foster disaster preparedness within the general population;
  • Conducting disaster drills to identify and correct deficiencies in disaster plans and training;
  • Creating emergency legal provisions which enable mobilization of additional resources (such as the National Guard) and maintenance of public order.
Destruction and casualties resulting from earthquake hazards can be minimized when national, regional and local governments properly implement procedures based upon the outline presented above. However, it is rare that all necessary procedures will be adopted, due largely to budget constraints, existing infrastructure limitations, political wrangling and mere short-sightedness. Keep in mind that, should a severe earthquake strike, emergency crews — no matter how well-trained — may be unable to respond for prolonged periods of time due to significant infrastructure disruption such as damaged equipment, blocked roads, downed power lines and resultant loss of electricity, and broken water mains and gas lines.


Personal earthquake preparedness should revolve around a central concept:  Expect the worst.  Assume that you will receive no water, food or medical attention for at least several days following a major quake. Making this simple assumption should leave one thing abundantly clear in your mind:  With regard to you and your family, earthquake preparedness is solely in your hands. If you are in earthquake country, you need to prepare and to prepare properly. A byproduct of proper earthquake planning is less worry about whether or not a large quake may occur because you will know that you are prepared.

Start your planning by drawing up an Earthquake Preparedness Inventory (EPI). Your EPI should contain two types of entries:  Things to Do and Things to Have. I have drafted a sample EPI outline below to help you get started. While I recognize that very few people will want to or be able to perform every task on the sample EPI, the more steps you perform, the better prepared you will be if a major earthquake strikes.

Things To Do Before an Earthquake Strikes

  • Insure that your house is bolted securely to its foundation. This may require inspection by a licensed building contractor. Houses built on concrete slab foundations or with a crawlspace (no basement) may not be secured to the foundation unless building codes required this procedure at the time the home was constructed.
  • Insure that your water heater is securely strapped and fastened to wall studs. This is now a requirement for new water heater installations in many earthquake zones. A plumbing or general contractor can do this for a minimal fee.
  • If your home uses gas, have an emergency gas shutoff valve installed on the line into your house. If homes in your neighborhood are spaced closely together, ask your neighbors to do this as well to reduce the risk of explosion and potential for fire to spread to adjacent structures.
  • Microchip dogs and cats so they can be identified if they become lost following an earthquake. Pets can become very disoriented when involved in disaster situations. Collars can be rubbed off. Microchip identification assures that your pet can be traced back to you if it is found.
  • Be certain that your pets’ vaccinations are kept current. If your pet escapes following an earthquake, it may come in contact with other disoriented pets and with wildlife.
  • While you’re at it, make sure that your own vaccinations and those of your family members are current — especially for diseases such as tetanus.
  • Keep important documents and records such as deeds, wills, birth records and marriage certificates, insurance documents and tax records in a secure location in waterproof bags or containers. You may want to consider renting a safe deposit box or purchasing a fire safe. Giving a CD-ROM upon which document images are stored to a trusted relative or friend in a distant location for safekeeping is also a good idea.
  • Inspect your insurance policies to be certain that they adequately cover projected losses if your home or personal effects were to be completely destroyed in a disaster. You may want to purchase earthquake insurance, but keep in mind that earthquake insurance should really be called catastrophic earthquake insurance because it typically comes with a very high deductible (and an equally hefty cost). Fire insurance should cover replacement cost of your dwelling.
  • Create a contact list which includes essential emergency phone numbers and phone numbers of friends and family members. Using a computer to do this is a great idea because you can update the list easily, but be sure you always print multiple copies to have available in the event of power failure. Each family member living with you, as well as someone you trust living outside of your immediate area, should have a copy of this list.
  • Make sure you and your family members know the locations of the nearest three hospitals or emergency care clinics as well as the location of the nearest trauma unit.
  • Where available, consult ground shaking maps, learn where maximum ground shaking and liquefaction can occur, and avoid these areas whenever possible.
  • Plan and periodically review evacuation routes. You should have one primary and at least two alternate routes leading away from the region in which you live and work. These routes should ideally take you over as few bridges as possible and should not traverse areas that might be susceptible to landslides. You should have maps upon which these routes are clearly marked in every vehicle you own.
  • If you live in or near a low-lying coastal area, familiarize yourself with tsunami safety procedures and tsunami evacuation routes. If no tsunami evacuation procedure is in place where you live, know where to go to quickly reach high ground.
Many of the above earthquake preparedness items apply not only to earthquakes, but to other types of disasters as well.

Things To Have Available for Proper Earthquake Preparedness

  • This section of the EPI is presently being written. Please check back again.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 15 November 2003, updated 4 June 2006.

Follow links to the right to learn more about earthquake and seismic hazards. At the left margin, Related Links address additional topics of interest pertaining to earthquakes, including dangers associated with earthquakes such as landslides and tsunamis. View the Security & Consumer Protection SiteMap for a complete list of all our security and consumer protection topics.

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