Earthquakes are unpredictable, and their effects can be severe. Unlike other natural disasters, there is no accurate way to predict when and where they will occur. Even if you don’t live in an area prone to earthquakes, you could still be affected.
Recently, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey, and it caused devastation, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries. Hundreds of aftershocks have occurred, including one that reached 7.3 and another at 6.3 in the surrounding area. The earthquake has killed over 45,000 people and injured more than 108,000.
Even if you don’t plan on visiting Turkey, it’s important to remember that earthquakes can happen anywhere. In 1959, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Hebgen Lake, Montana, which shows that even rural areas are not immune to earthquakes. Additionally, if you’re traveling domestically or overseas to places like California or Oregon, you could also find yourself in an earthquake-prone area.
Earthquakes can cause not only structural damage but also other collateral damage, such as power outages, broken gas, and water lines, and aftershocks that can worsen the situation. In more populated areas, transportation can be compromised, communication methods can be disrupted, medical resources can be overwhelmed, and there is a potential for looting and rioting.
To help you and your loved ones prepare for earthquakes and their aftermath, we will delve into the science of earthquakes, help you prepare for the potential conditions you may face, and outline actions you can take to minimize the impact of an earthquake.
What are earthquakes?
To put it simply, an earthquake occurs when sections of the earth’s crust shift past each other, creating shockwaves. This can be compared to snapping your fingers, where the two fingers represent blocks of the crust. As friction builds up, pressure increases and is eventually released as energy, similar to the sound of snapping your fingers. This pressure wave is then released in all directions, causing the shaking that we feel during an earthquake as the energy travels through the earth’s crust.
How is the size of earthquakes calculated?
Earthquakes are intricate phenomena that involve many variables, leading scientists to speculate on their actual “size.” Although we feel the surface shaking, the seismic event usually originates from deep below the earth’s surface. Seismographs, used in seismic networks around the world, measure the earthquake’s energy, referred to as magnitude, which does not always correspond to the intensity of shaking experienced.
Earthquakes produce various waves, including P-waves and S-waves. P-waves, with their push/pull motion, are the first to be recorded since they travel the fastest. S-waves follow and have an up-and-down and side-to-side motion.
The duration and movement of the ground recordings from seismograph stations around the earthquake’s vicinity are triangulated to determine its size and epicenter. The Richter Scale is no longer the standard method for measuring earthquake size, and intensity is used to assess its effects on people, structures, and the environment.
For reference, a magnitude 6.0 earthquake has approximately 32 times more energy than a magnitude 5.0 earthquake and around 1,000 times more energy than a 4.0 earthquake. However, the amount of destruction at the surface depends on many variables, such as soil conditions and structural integrity.
For instance, the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.7, caused 60 fatalities, injured over 7,000 people, and damaged more than 40,000 buildings in Los Angeles and neighboring counties. The 2001 Nisqually, Washington, earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.8, caused less damage because it occurred along a deeper fault.
Where do earthquakes happen?
The earth is made up of numerous tectonic plates that somewhat resemble a jigsaw puzzle. These plates are always moving, and their boundaries are made up of faults. Quakes typically occur on and in close proximity to these plate margins.
How do we know where faults are?
Earthquakes can leave visible evidence of displaced rock formations, and scientists use earthquake recordings to map the location of faults. However, blind thrust faults do not show such signs, and their location remains unknown until an earthquake occurs. Some earthquakes in California have happened along previously unknown faults, meaning that people may not even realize if they are living on or near a fault line.
Although maps can provide an idea of where fault lines are located, areas far from fault lines can still experience man-made earthquakes due to induced seismicity. Activities such as dam construction can affect the underlying ground’s stress levels and cause earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been linked to smaller earthquakes because it typically occurs at shallower depths, but wastewater disposal resulting from drilling activities has been known to trigger significant earthquakes.
While thousands of wastewater disposal wells exist across the country, only a few dozen are known to have caused induced felt earthquakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The possibility of other wells causing earthquakes remains unpredictable, as many factors must align to trigger a seismic event strong enough to be felt. As research continues, scientists hope to learn more about the connections between drilling, wastewater disposal, and seismic activity.
Preparing for earthquakes
To reduce the risk of injuries or fatalities during an earthquake, it is important to take precautions and identify potential hazards in your home or office. You don’t need to be a construction expert to make some simple adjustments and relocate items to safer places. Here are some ideas to get started:
- Place heavy or larger items on the floor or low shelves.
- Move taller, heavier furniture away from places where people typically spend a lot of time, such as sofas and beds.
- Install latches on kitchen cabinets to prevent items from falling out.
- Secure major appliances like your water heater and fridge to the walls with additional metal straps.
- Hang mirrors or pictures on closed hooks and secure their corners with earthquake putty.
- Use flexible connectors to secure gas lines where they meet appliances to reduce the risk of line breakage and fires.
- Use flexible fasteners like nylon straps to secure top-heavy furniture to the wall, anchoring them to the stud for a stronger hold.
- Move flammable liquids to lower shelves or the floor to prevent spills and fires.
- Secure electronics with flexible nylon straps and buckles for easy removal and relocation.
- Use hook-and-loop fasteners or earthquake putty/microcrystalline wax to secure loose items on shelves, such as lamps.
By taking these simple steps, you can reduce the risk of falling objects and furniture causing harm during an earthquake.
After making necessary repairs, it is important to create a disaster preparedness plan to protect yourself and your family in case of an earthquake. While the plan may differ for each individual, there are certain constants that must be taken into account, such as:
- Practice “drop, cover, and hold on” and identify safe locations to stay during the earthquake, such as sturdy tables or desks.
- Learn CPR from a certified instructor.
- Keep a pair of sturdy walking shoes and a working flashlight by your bedside.
- Purchase at least one fire extinguisher for your home.
- Know the location of utility shutoffs and keep tools nearby to turn them off if needed. Only shut off the gas if there is a leak.
- Teach emergency knocks, whistles, or other signals to use if trapped.
- Install smoke alarms and test them monthly.
- Decide on an outdoor meeting point for you and your family to gather after the earthquake subsides.
- Consider family members with special needs and plan how to accommodate them during an emergency.
- Have a backup living arrangement if your home becomes unlivable.
- Take photos or videos of your possessions and keep a list of your household inventory.
- Store important documents such as insurance records, identification, medical information, and financial records in a secure, waterproof container.
- If you have pets, plan for their safe transportation and needs during an emergency, since shelters may not have space for them unless they are service animals.
Consider organizing a meeting with your neighbors to identify individuals with skills and resources that could be helpful during an emergency. Check with your city or county to see if there is a nearby Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) already in place. If not, work with your neighbors and nearby residents to establish one. Along with choosing an emergency contact outside of your area, it’s important to have a list of phone numbers for close friends, relatives, and emergency facilities. Your children’s school or daycare may have evacuation plans in place, so it’s important to become familiar with them and understand where they may be relocated to.
Gearing up for earthquakes
To be prepared for disasters, it’s important to have both a personal disaster kit and a household disaster kit.
For personal kits, it’s recommended to have one for your home, office, and car, as you never know where you’ll be during an emergency. Some essential items to include in your personal kit are medications, a first-aid kit, a whistle, spare glasses or contact lenses, and high-calorie snacks. Don’t forget important documents like identification and emergency contacts.
For a household kit, plan to have enough supplies to last anywhere from three days to two weeks, as essential resources may be unavailable for an extended period. Keep these supplies in an easily accessible location and check expiration dates yearly. Your household kit should include water, tools to turn off the gas and water supply, dining utensils, work gloves, and protective goggles. You may also want to include a portable radio, extra flashlights, and light sticks. Canned and packaged food, a grill for outdoor cooking, and pet food should also be included. Additionally, prepare for cold weather with warm clothing, blankets, and a tent. Don’t forget to keep copies of identification in your kit as well.
There are additional ways to prepare for a disaster. Start by identifying any potential weaknesses in your home. If you have an older home or if you’re unsure what to look for, it’s recommended that you get quotes from various contractors on how to strengthen any parts of your home. For renters or those living in large buildings, it’s best to ask the landlord if any retrofitting has been done, if water heaters have been braced, and what is allowed in the rent or lease agreement to secure furniture to walls or make structural modifications.
Homes with crawl spaces, buildings with underground parking, unreinforced masonry, and inadequate foundations can also compromise structural integrity. It’s important to ask your insurance carrier about your existing policy and whether it covers earthquakes.
Don’t assume that your home and possessions will automatically be covered in an earthquake by standard homeowners or renters policies. If little or no earthquake-related coverage is offered, consider getting earthquake insurance to supplement any existing coverage.
When the big one happens
In case of an earthquake, your actions will depend on your location and the severity of the quake. While it’s impossible to predict every outcome, here are some general guidelines to follow:
Immediately drop to your hands and knees. Seek shelter under a sturdy desk or table, covering your head, neck, and entire body if possible. Be ready to move with your shelter if it shifts. If you’re in bed, stay there and cover your head with a pillow. Avoid running outside or using elevators. Stay where you are until the shaking stops.
Pull over and stop your vehicle if the ground starts shaking. Set the parking brake and try to avoid areas near overpasses, power lines, and bridges. If a power line falls on your car, remain inside until rescue personnel can safely remove it.
Move to an open area away from power lines, trees, buildings, and other structures that may fall. If you’re near the shore and the shaking lasts for 20 seconds or longer, immediately move as far away from the shore as possible, as a tsunami may have been triggered and could be headed your way.
After the earth stops moving
Even after the initial earthquake has passed, there is still the possibility of aftershocks, so it’s important to remain calm and follow your emergency plans. Here’s what to do:
First, take care of yourself by assessing your surroundings for potential hazards, such as gas leaks, fires, or building damage. If you notice a gas leak, turn off the main valve and wait for the gas company to inspect and turn it back on. If there are broken electrical wires, shut off the power at the main breaker and leave it off until it’s repaired. Unplug any damaged appliances or lights to avoid fires when power is restored.
Since things may still fall, move to a safe location. If you’re trapped, protect your face from dust and try to communicate for help by knocking on solid surfaces, using your phone, or shouting for assistance.
Once you’re safe, attend to others and provide first aid if possible. If you’re not sure what to do, wait for medical professionals to arrive. Do not move anyone who is seriously injured unless it’s necessary to prevent further harm.
If your home or office is damaged or the area around it is unsafe, evacuate to a safer location. Use your disaster supply kit as needed, and relocate to a friend or relative’s undamaged home or community shelter. If the building is undamaged, it’s okay to remain there even if utilities are out. Keep in touch with your out-of-area contact to let them know your location and condition. Use a radio to stay informed about safety advisories and shelter locations.
If you stay at home, be sure to have enough food and water. Use any perishable items in your freezer before they spoil, and drink bottled water, melted ice cubes, or liquid from canned vegetables if your water is off or potentially contaminated.
In the event of a significant earthquake, power outages may occur and last for an indefinite amount of time. This includes both gas and electricity. Consider investing in extra gas supplies and generators, both solar and gas-powered, to improve your living conditions substantially during power outages.
Broken water lines may take months to repair, and sewage line damage could contaminate broken water lines, making tap water unsafe for up to a year. Stocking up on extra water is highly recommended.
During and after the earthquake, mobile phone lines may be overwhelmed as many people will try to call at once, and this could last for an indefinite amount of time. Due to the lack of regulation in the ways that cell towers are attached to buildings, towers may be damaged by the shaking. Downed phone lines and interrupted Internet access may also contribute to interrupted communications. It may be worth investing in satellite phones.
Road damage may take months to repair. Find alternative routes to work, medical help, or potential evacuation locations instead of relying on conventional highways.
During a time when medical attention is most needed, earthquakes may cause undamaged hospitals to reach capacity and operate with limited resources and staff, while damage to other hospitals may render them unsafe and closed. The ability to receive medical care will be significantly reduced. Consider finding alternative means of medical care, taking first-aid courses, and coordinating with nearby residents to see if any are trained medical professionals.
Earthquakes can cause widespread damage and disrupt our daily lives, and it’s important to be prepared both before and after one occurs. By creating an emergency plan, securing your home, and stocking up on supplies, you can increase your chances of staying safe and comfortable during and after an earthquake.
It’s also important to be aware of the potential aftermath, including power outages, water and communication disruptions, and transportation challenges, and plan accordingly. By being informed and proactive, you can minimize the impact of an earthquake on yourself, your family, and your community.
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