What to Do During an Earthquake

The Definitive Guide to Protecting Your Home and Car During an Earthquake

Earthquakes are a devastating natural disaster and can completely destroy properties, ruin cars and valuable possessions, and possibly displace families. Earthquakes can range from mild tremors to the ground shaking and buildings being damaged and destroyed.

While specific regions, like California, are more prone to earthquakes (check out the earthquake hazard map here), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) department says that “there is a chance of damaging shaking happening anywhere and everywhere in the United States.”

Worldwide, the USGS observes around 500,000 earthquakes worldwide annually, many of them minor. In the US, however, earthquakes often carry a magnitude of 5-5.9 on the Richter Scale, which is strong enough to cause damage to buildings.

Annually, earthquakes cost the U.S $6.1B in building stock losses which account for both economic loss and physical damage. While it’s hard to prepare and prevent damage against severe earthquakes, you can take steps to protect yourself and your home.  

To better prepare you in the event of an earthquake, we put together this guide on what you can do to protect yourself and prepare your home in advance.

Frequently Asked Questions About Earthquakes

  • How do I know if an earthquake is coming? There is no advance notice of earthquakes but emergency info will be provided via radio, tv, and text messages to your phone by the Emergency Management System.
  • How can an earthquake damage my home? An earthquake can vary by intensity or severity but even mild earthquakes can damage the foundation of your home, putting it at risk of collapsing, leaking, or flooding.
  • How can I prevent an earthquake from damaging my home or belongings? Fastening and tying down furniture and appliances, ensuring gas appliances have flexible connections, and strengthening your home’s foundation, walls, and windows (with the help of an expert).
  • Does home insurance cover earthquake damage? A standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage. You’ll have to obtain a separate earthquake insurance policy or consider a parametric insurance policy.
  • Does my auto insurance cover earthquake damage to my car? Yes, if you have comprehensive auto insurance. Standard collision auto insurance coverage won’t cover earthquake-related damage.
  • How do I know if my area is at risk for an earthquake? You can reference the earthquake hazard map here.

What should I do to prepare for an earthquake?

An earthquake can come at any moment and it’s hard to know how severe it will be so take these steps as soon as you can even if there’s no earthquake warning or notice. Some of these are long-term projects that will provide more security and protection to your home and possessions.

Have an emergency kit ready: To prepare for worst-case scenarios, make sure you have a fire extinguisher, radio, flashlight, emergency-use food, water, a first-aid kit, hand sanitizer, backup power, blankets, a whistle, a cell-phone charger, and cash on hand. If you haven’t already, keep your most precious belongings secure and stored safely so they don’t get lost or irreparably damaged.

Consider your interior furniture and belongings: Earthquake straps can help fasten heavy furniture to your wall and adding a “lip edge” or “shelf lip” to shelfs can prevent objects in open shelves from falling. This can be part of the furniture design or can be added to your shelf (with varying types) that will stop objects from sliding off. You’ll also need to consider where tall and heavy furniture sits relevant to where you and your family are sleeping, in case of an overnight earthquake. Protective plastic window film (also known as security window film) can help prevent windows from shattering. Securing cabinet doors with latches will stop them from flinging open, preventing the objects inside from falling and breaking.

Secure your gas and water appliances: Your gas appliances should use flexible pipe connections to prevent the line from rupturing. You may also want to use an automatic valve that can shut off gas in case of an earthquake. Make sure your water appliances are fastened and secure to reduce the chance of leaks or moisture from damaging your property.

We suggest hiring a licensed technician who can help strengthen your overall foundation, ensure your walls are braced and protected, and may help retrofit your home if it was built before 1980 and/or under older building codes. An expert may also spot defective electrical wiring and/or leaky gas connections which are potential fire risks during an earthquake. This can also reduce your earthquake home insurance premiums (depending on the specific policy). Here’s a good guide that can help earthquake-proof your home.

Have a plan ready: You should have a plan for escaping the building after the shaking stops (and if the building is compromised), know how to reach loved ones, and find help in case of a disaster. Remember that FEMA and local government and state departments will have the most up-to-date information on where you can get help and find shelter.

Keep your car secure: Keeping your car in your garage may not be the best idea if there’s living space above the garage. If you do keep it outside, make sure it’s clear of power lines, trees, and street signs so there’s a minimal chance of something falling and damaging your car. Always keep an emergency kit in your car in case of an earthquake occurring while you’re driving.

What should I do during an earthquake?

If you’re at home…

If you’re in your home, stay there and get under a desk or table to prevent objects from falling and damaging you. Stay away from windows, any fireplaces, or tall and heavy furniture. If you can’t get under a desk or table, move into a hallway or stay against an inside wall. Don’t run downstairs and try to avoid changing locations, especially if your building or home is shaking.

If you’re in a car…

Try and find a safe place to stop. Stay away from traffic as much as you can and avoid stopping on or under a bridge, an overpass, or under trees, power lines, and any street signs. Don’t get out of the car until the shaking stops. If possible, find a local radio station that will provide helpful information about the earthquake and what you can do.

What should I do after an earthquake?

If your home is relatively intact

See if your carbon monoxide monitor is working and smell for gas. If you do, contact the appropriate authorities and consider leaving your home (and open all your windows). You should also check your water, gas, and electric appliances to see if any connections have been damaged. Until you’re certain that there’s no gas leak, avoid lighting matches or turning on any light switches.

Look for any structural damage in your home. Check all your walls, windows, interiors, exteriors, and even any furniture that might have been rattled or damaged by fallen objects. Stay away from chimneys, which are prone to falling over.

If your home is compromised…

Seek shelter immediately and prioritize evacuating the building safely and with your emergency kit and other valuable possessions. Even if your building is upright and intact, you may want to leave and seek shelter if you’ve spotted cracks or other significant damage. More damage may be sustained over a short period of time or due to any aftershocks which are frequent after an earthquake. Contact your local authorities to find any local shelters where you and your family can stay.

If you’re in a car…

Once the shaking stops and you resume driving, keep an eye out for downed power lines, fallen rocks, breaks in the pavement, and potential flooding. Be wary of overpasses or bridges as they may have structural damage and can be at risk of falling or collapsing. See if there’s anyone who may need help or medical assistance.

No matter where you are, make sure that you’re keeping yourself informed of local information on assistance and any other critical information that can help you, especially if you’re not home or needed to evacuate. Lastly, remember that aftershocks are quite common after an earthquake and are often severe if they’re following an intense earthquake.

Filing insurance claims after an earthquake

If you’re going to file a claim after an earthquake, document who you’ve spoken with, take photos of any damage your home, car, and furniture, goods, and items sustained during the hurricane. This will make filing an insurance claim much easier. Depending on the severity of the earthquake, you may be eligible for federal assistance and potentially state assistance.

Remember that you’ll have to take out a specific earthquake insurance policy - which may be necessary in states that have higher risk of earthquakes (like California). If you just have a standard homeowner’s insurance policy, you may not be covered for any earthquake damage. Parametric insurance may also cover damage tied to earthquakes (and other specified events) but payouts are only delivered depending on a specific metric set by the policy (for example, how severe an earthquake is), and verified by a third-party.

To learn more about what insurance coverage you may need, check out Branch to see if it’s right for you.

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