Protecting your home and car during an earthquake

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) observes around 500,000 earthquakes worldwide annually, many of them minor. However, in the U.S. earthquakes often carry a magnitude of 5–5.9 on the Richter scale, which is strong enough to cause damage to buildings. While specific regions, like California, are more known to be more prone to earthquakes, there’s always risk regardless of where you live.

Earthquakes carry the potential to destroy property, cars, and valuable possessions, and possibly displace families. Annually, earthquakes cost the U.S $14.7B in both economic loss and physical damage. 

It’s hard to prepare your home for severe earthquakes, but Branch is providing some insight on what you can do to protect yourself and your home.

Frequently asked questions about earthquakes

  • How do I know if an earthquake is coming? 
    There is no advance notice of earthquakes. The Emergency Management System will provide information via radio, TV, and text messages.

  • How can an earthquake damage my home? 
    Earthquakes vary in 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 furniture and appliances, ensuring gas appliances have flexible connections, and strengthening your home’s foundation, walls, and windows with the help of a professional.

  • Does home insurance cover earthquake damage? 
    A standard homeowners policy does not cover earthquake damage. You can 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 doesn’t cover earthquake-related damage.

  • How do I know if my area is at risk for an earthquake? 
    Reference the earthquake hazard map.

How can I prepare for an earthquake?

Because earthquakes are so unexpected, it’s important to take preemptive steps, even if there’s no earthquake warning or notice.

  1. Keep an emergency kit: Keep a fire extinguisher, radio, flashlight, emergency-use food, water, first-aid kit, hand sanitizer, backup power, blankets, whistle, a cell-phone charger, and cash on hand. Store your most precious belongings securely so they don’t get lost or irreparably damaged.

  2. Be aware of furniture and belongings: Earthquake straps can help fasten heavy furniture to your wall, and adding a shelf lip to shelves can prevent objects on open shelves from falling (this can be a part of the original design or added to your shelf). Consider where tall and heavy furniture sits relevant to where you and your family sleep. Protective plastic window film— security window film—can help prevent windows from shattering. Securing cabinet doors with latches will stop them from flinging open, and prevent the objects inside from falling and breaking.

  3. Secure 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. Be sure your water appliances are fastened and secure to reduce the chance of leaks or moisture damaging your property.

  4. Consult an expert: We suggest hiring a licensed technician to help strengthen your overall foundation, ensure your walls are braced and protected, and 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. 

  5. Make a plan: Know your evacuation route for leaving the building after shaking stops and have a plan for how to contact loved ones and find help. FEMA and local government and state departments will have the most up-to-date information on where you can get help and find shelter.

  6. Secure your car: If there’s a living space above your garage, consider keeping your car outside. If you do, ensure it’s clear of power lines, trees, and street signs to minimize risk of something falling and damaging your car. 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… stay there and get under a desk or table to prevent objects from falling and injuring you. Stay away from windows, 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. Avoid changing locations, especially if your building or home is shaking.

If you’re in a car… try to find a safe place to stop. Stay away from traffic as much as you can, and avoid stopping on or under a bridge, overpass, under trees, power lines, and street signs. Don’t get out of the car until the shaking stops. If possible, set your radio to a local station that can provide up-to-date information.

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, open all your windows, and consider leaving your home. Check your water, gas, and electric appliances to see if any connections have been damaged. Until you’re certain there’s no gas leak, avoid lighting matches or turning on any light switches. Look for any structural damage in your home. Check your walls, windows, interiors, exteriors, and even any furniture that may 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 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 local shelters where you and your family can stay.

If you’re in a car… Once 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. Look out for anyone who may need help or medical assistance.

Wherever you are, keep yourself informed about locally available assistance or critical updates, especially if you’re not home or needed to evacuate. Lastly, remember that aftershocks are quite common after an earthquake, and can reflect the severity of the earthquake.

Filing insurance claims after an earthquake

If you need to file an insurance claim after an earthquake, document the adjusters you’ve spoken with and take photos of any damage to your home, car, furniture, goods, and items that sustained damage during the hurricane. Depending on the severity of the earthquake, you may be eligible for federal assistance and potentially state assistance.

Note you’ll need a specific earthquake insurance policy, which may be mandatory in higher risk states like California. If you have a standard homeowners policy, you may not be covered for earthquake damage. Parametric insurance may also cover damage tied to earthquakes, and other specified events, but payouts are only delivered depending on a policy-specific metric, and verified by a third-party.