Making it through the earthquake is easy—the hard part comes later.
Though it’s the most famous, the San Andreas Fault is just one of more than 500 active faults in California. Jonas D. Bell Shutterstock.com
If you live in California and you’re near a faultline, experts say it’s a certainty that a major earthquake will hit your region. They just can’t be certain when it will hit. Sure, the Big One might not happen in your lifetime. But an earthquake greater than magnitude 7.0 is overdue on just about every major fault that runs through California, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Thankfully, early warning systems might buy us all a few precious seconds to get to safety before a major earthquake hits. But it’s being prepared for the first few days after an earthquake that can make the difference between life and death for many. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, it took several days for federal aid to reach the region and provide substantive support to survivors.
A major earthquake will cripple a region for many days and weeks with only the most critical injuries being treated and emergency response systems overwhelmed with calls for help, experts say. Firefighters and police will triage to tackle the biggest problems first, and there are sure to be major fires that spring up everywhere due to busted gas lines. Police will be primarily focused on stabilizing the region, tamping down chaos as average citizens panic and predatory criminals take advantage of the situation. We all hope that an emergency will bring the best out in our neighbors, but there will be exceptions—and those exceptions will get more pronounced as more time goes by without outside assistance.
Unless you need medical care, you can expect to be on your own for several days before the cavalry comes to the rescue. A little preparation will go a long way toward getting through the ordeal. Here’s a concise checklist, plus some suggestions of where you can go for more information.
As a first order of business, we highly recommend you check out the podcast The Big One: Your Survival Guide by KPCC Studios. This 10-part series by one of Southern California’s best public radio news stations is a gripping exploration of likely scenarios that will happen during the quake itself, and the first few days after. The podcast also covers the science of quakes, and the lasting impacts the damage will have on the region’s economy.
Build an earthquake kit or buy a preassembled one. The more you can put in a kit, the better off you’ll be, but if storage or space is at a premium, at least be sure to include the essentials: a first aid kit, a flashlight, an emergency radio (expect power and cell phone outages for awhile), face masks and goggles, and food items such as ramen noodles and canned goods to get you through a couple of days. Don’t forget to include essential medications you need for several days. (Visit the California Department of Public Health website for a comprehensive checklist.)
If you’ve got room to spare, add what you can to get you through a few days of living outdoors or in makeshift tents or shelters if you’re unable to get into your home. And bonus points for creating second and third kits for your car and office.
Where will you keep your kit so that you have easy access to it when you need to grab and go? Think about where you spend the bulk of your time at your house; it’s likely your bedroom or home office or living room, so think through where you’ll duck and cover in any of those places and put one there. Closets are good options, as you may want to shelter under the doorframe. Experts also recommend keeping a pair of sturdy shoes near your bed so you can grab them if you are jolted awake and need to navigate a landscape of broken glass and other hazards.
Create a plan with your family or household members. Where will you duck and cover in your house? Where will you meet up if you’re not at home when an earthquake hits and you have no cell service to communicate? Who will get the kids at school? Who is your lead contact person outside of the region, and have you prepared a list of emergency contacts or plans to share with them? Can you trust them with electronic copies of important documents and insurance policies? Have you located your home’s gas line and practiced turning it off?
If you live in an apartment complex, have you asked your manager what their earthquake plan consists of? Has your HOA discussed disaster planning? Be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease!
Invest in some cheap solar devices now. They’re great for camping and beach days and will help you through any crisis much better than those who don’t have a backup power source. We all know how fast cell phone batteries can drain, and having a small solar battery pack or solar-powered generator will greatly reduce the stress of the moment, particularly if you have children who will be dealing with frayed nerves as it is.
If you’re a camper, you’re already ahead of the preparedness curve, assuming you can access your items. Camping stoves, coolers and large water containers should be easily accessible and will greatly help you shelter in place. Save whatever food in your fridge that you can fit in your cooler and be sure to throw in some frozen goods that will double as ice to help extend the life of your food. Cook and eat the perishable food first. And if you live near a grocery store, chances are they will be giving away perishable items to those who show up first or charging a small fee for them.
Be ready with a survival plan for the immediate aftermath of an earthquake. Remember there will almost certainly be severe aftershocks for days after a quake that will further damage unstable buildings, so you’ll want to triage with your loved ones and neighbors and figure out how to handle shelter situations, injuries, and food. Emergency broadcasts will tell you how severe the situation is and when you can expect help, so that hand-cranked radio you have in your kit will be a godsend. Official bulletins will also provide you with guidance on to get out of the region if roads are safe. Be sure you have plenty of cash on hand for expenses, as credit cards are useless when a vendor can’t connect to a network.
If your house is uninhabitable due to damage or lack of power, you may want to get out of Dodge to stay with others or look for hotels. Home-sharing services like Airbnb often work with owners to make homes available during a crisis, but that’s not a guarantee and you might not have cell service or wifi. If you are able to get a message through to loved ones in other areas, ask them to help you find a safe place that’s just out of the affected region. But keep in mind that gas stations will likely be knocked out and those that are functional will have long lines. Try to get in the habit of filling up every time you hit half a tank instead of letting your car get empty and you’ll save yourself a major headache if you’re fleeing the area.
The doomsday preachers have done the survivalist prep work for you, and Googling will lead to a plethora of material. Even Pinterest is a source of inspiration for earthquake kit prep and emergency planning. Or you could trust the disaster experts and their advice: