How to prepare for an earthquake

September 22, 2019

Last July 5, 2019, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck near Ridgecrest, California, taking out power, causing gas leaks, fire, and injuries to people. It was the strongest quake in Southern California since 1999.  But what’s unsettling about this is the fact that a 6.4 magnitude earthquake already struck almost the same area just a day prior.

While these 2 earthquakes did not impact the San Andreas fault in any way, it also doesn’t decrease the chances of the massive earthquake happening nonetheless.  Despite this fact, it still is raising fear about the “Big One” among the Southern California community acting as a reminder and a warning that being prepared for this inevitable event is just as important as ever.  

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of how you can prepare to ensure you and your family will be safe.  Since earthquakes are unpredictable and give no advance warning, having supplies and armed with knowledge, you increase your chance of survival by getting ready now. 

Before we jump into the specifics of how to get ready, let’s understand why it is so important to be prepared for the big one.

And by the way, What is the “Big One”? 

For those living outside of California, you may not be familiar with this term.  The Big One is the term used for the hypothetical magnitude 7 or greater earthquake that scientists are expecting, based on past geological studies, to hit the San Andreas Fault which extends about 750 miles through California

Why is the San Andreas Fault primed for a massive earthquake?

There’s really no way to accurately predict when an earthquake will happen, where it will strike, and how strong it will be.  The best that seismologists can do with their existing tools is to determine if a fault line is overdue for an earthquake or not.

In 2006, a study came out that the San Andreas Fault, in particular, the fault line located in Southern California, is already long overdue for an earthquake. The study states that the southern part of the fault line is already “building up a considerable amount of strain”.  This is because certain areas of the fault line in the southern part have not experienced an earthquake for 162 years.  

To help you understand why long inactivity of the fault line can cause a big earthquake, here’s how the U.S. Geological Survey explained how earthquakes work.  According to their website, they state that the San Andreas Fault Zone is the main fault between the Pacific tectonic plate on the west and the North American plate on the east. It started moving roughly 28-30 million years ago and the motion between the tectonic plates moves about 50 mm (or 2 inches) per year and is distributed across the faults part of the zone. The faults are boundaries between blocks and they are constantly moving.  The edge of the blocks are stuck and will only move when there’s a large earthquake.

The fault line along Southern California, in particular, the one below Los Angeles, has not yet moved since 1857.  This means that the fault on that area has already built up a massive amount of stress that can cause it to slip anytime. This is why experts are saying that the San Andreas Fault is already primed for an earthquake and the southern part of California seems to be the likely location.

How devastating will the “Big One” be?

Obviously Hollywood has capitalized on the fear of this event through movies like the 2015 blockbuster, “San Andreas” which portrays the event as an over the top, apocalyptic event.  While the movie was entertaining the watch, it obviously was well, entertainment.

To help you fully realize why you need to prepare for the “Big One”, let’s talk about how devastating this earthquake could be.  In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a ShakeOut scenario to see the effects of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Southern California.  Click this link if you’d like to read this document. It’s a very sobering report.

The hypothetical scenario, which had the quake beginning at Coachella Valley and traveling across California, showed that the initial shock would destroy old buildings, damage the roads, and cut power, water, and communications lines.  Many important roads and areas in Southern California are actually located in what we call an earthquake liquefaction zone. Liquefaction is basically the process where sand or soil losses its stiffness and strength due to an earthquake.  It basically makes the soil act like a liquid and is one of the primary reasons for extreme damage to buildings and other structures built on top of it as the foundation simply gives way.

The power, water, and gas lines that supply the Los Angeles area run through the San Andreas Fault as well.  The quake will damage or even break them and restoring them will likely take months. But the majority of the damage will come from the hundreds, if not thousands of fires that will inevitably break out as a result of ruptured gas lines.  Containing them will be a challenge since a water supply will be limited and a lot of the roads inaccessible to fire departments. This has the strong potential to cause small fires to merge into big ones and can wipe out large sections of Los Angeles.

The report also said that the fire could still get worse if the Santa Ana winds, which tend to peak during the fire season which plagues California annually, are blowing when the earthquake strikes. The Santa Ana winds blow dry air from the inland deserts towards the coast, increasing the risk of wildfires.  This was one of the main reasons the fire destroyed Paradise California.  If the Big One occurs during our annual fire season, the likelihood of an out of control fire situation in Southern California multiplies.  Not only are fires a concern, but there are also the aftershocks that will follow the initial quake and these shocks could worsen the destruction that the region is already reeling from.

The damaged and broken infrastructure, including the lines that bring power, water, and gas to Los Angeles will likely take a year to repair and could cause the region’s economy to collapse. Though this scenario was mapped out in 2008, what they showed in the report is still relevant to this day and is likely the scenario you can expect to unfold should the San Andreas Faultline finally slip.

How to Prepare For An Earthquake

The “Big One” happening is not a matter of if, but just a matter of when.  This leads us to discuss how to prepare for this looming event.  

  1. Preparing Your Home – One of the first things you need to do before an earthquake is to prepare your home. Though you can’t really prevent your home from getting destroyed in the face of a powerful natural disaster, you can at least ensure that your home won’t cause additional danger to you and your family.
    1. Make sure to fasten or secure heavy items like the refrigerator, TV sets, and shelves and fasten them to the wall.
    2. Heavy objects should be placed on lower shelves and strapped down so they don’t become a hazard in case they fall down or are thrown.
    3. Breakable items should be stored in low and closed cabinets.
    4. Picture frames and mirrors should also be secured and placed away from beds or areas where you and your family sleep.
    5. Hanging light fixtures should also be braced and secured.
    6. Make sure to have defective wiring and faulty gas connections repaired.  If you know they’re issues now, take care of them.
    7. Poisonous and flammable items should be placed on bottom shelves of latched cabinets.
    8. Know how to turn off your gas line into your house.
    9. Repair large cracks in walls and foundations or retrofit weak areas in your house so they won’t collapse.  If you’re not sure if this is an issue, ordering an inspection would pay for itself.
    10. Identify safe areas in your house so you and your family can go there when an earthquake does strike such as under a table.  Make sure everyone knows the Drop, Cover, and Hold sequence so they know what to do if an earthquake strikes. 
    11. Maintain your vehicle as well if you have one and make sure it’s in good working condition in case you need it.  Also get in the habit of not letting your gas tank go below ½ full as in the event of an earthquake, getting gas may be very difficult.  Make sure there’s also an emergency supply bag in the car in case you are on the road when the earthquake strikes.
    12. Also, be sure to review your home insurance policy as most of them do not cover earthquake damage.  A separate policy is worth looking into as it may be a wise investment in the event your home is severely damaged.
  2. Preparing the supplies you will need
    1. There are 2 things to consider when it comes to supplies: having to leave your home in the event it is severely damaged, in which case having bags for each family member and the other option is if your home is not damaged, being able to stay in place.
      1. If you have to evacuate, here are some basic things you should have ready for each member of the family that you can easily grab and go:
        1. Food
        2. Water
        3. Medicine (if you’re on any medications)
        4. A first aid kit with a manual along with a tourniquet
        5. A flashlight along with extra batteries
        6. A hand-crank radio
        7. A 2-way radio
        8. A pair of gloves
        9. Water filter or iodine tablets to treat your water
        10. A change of clothes, which would be especially useful if the event an earthquake occurred while you’re sleeping and you don’t have time to grab clothes to put on.
        11. Have some cash ready and make sure you have small bills to pay for items. Don’t expect stores or gas stations to provide change.
        12. If you have pets, make sure the supplies they need are also packed and ready. 
      2. If you can stay in place, having these items will be incredibly useful to have:
        1. Fire extinguishers
          1. Having multiple fire extinguishers will be so important, as a fire that is not contained will easily get out of control as the fire departments will most likely not be coming to save your home.
        2. Water storage
          1. I personally store water in 5-gallon containers that I can take if I have to, 55-gallon drums in my garage that I can siphon water from, and a 2500 gallon water storage container at the top of my property.
        3. Water filtration
          1. Being able to filter the water you’ve got stored will be important.
        4. Fuel sources to cook with
          1. Personally I store propane tanks
          2. A wood rack that is stocked can also be useful
        5. Backup food storage
          1. Store as much as you can.  There’s a lot of information online regarding creating backup food storage.  In the event help may not arrive for a long period of time, not only will you be able to help your own family, but your neighbors as well.
  3. Have an Evacuation and Communications Plan – As mentioned, staying in your house may not be an option.  Having an evacuation plan and a designated meeting location will be important along with the ability to communicate with one another.
    1. Make sure that you and your family know the different evacuation centers or safe zones in your area should an earthquake strike.  It would be better if each one of you has a map that marks these locations. While some may not be comfortable with the notion of having to go to an area with a lot of other people, you may not have a choice if your home is no longer safe and the roads to leave your general area are blocked.  Staying in an evacuation area at least puts you in a location where supplies can be provided, medical attention is given, and a level of security knowing first responders will provide assistance to this location, something you probably won’t get if you go it alone.
    2. You should also know the possible routes that you and your family can take to get to these evacuation centers and alternate routes in case the original ones are unpassable.  
    3. Be aware of the plans and strategies that your community will have.
    4. You should also clearly communicate with one another about where you’ll meet should members of your family be away from your home and communication for whatever reason is not possible. 
    5. Don’t forget to have an evacuation plan for your pets as well to ensure they have food, water, medicine if they need it and a first aid kit in the event they get injured.
    6. For communication, a two-way radio is handy since phone and regular communication lines will likely be damaged.
    7. You can also designate an out-of-state person that you and your family can contact in case you’re separated.  This will help save time and have someone contact everyone directly to get updates from that person instead of you trying to contact one another.

How many days should you expect before help arrives?

One of the main reasons why it is so critically important that you are prepared for an earthquake is that you cannot expect the government or emergency authorities to provide help immediately after the disaster.  First responders will simply be overloaded.

There are a lot of factors that will determine how fast or slow the response and recovery will be.  How impassable are the roads, how much damage emergency centers sustained, and how many emergency responders are available, just to name a few.

The fastest timeline you can likely expect for outside help to arrive is usually within 24-hours.  But as many Americans saw first-hand after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, help may not be on the way for longer periods of time and it may be up to you and your community to take care of themselves.  One of the general rules of thumb when it comes to preparing for emergencies is to have enough supplies that can last you and your family for at least 72 hours if you have to evacuate.  But if you can stay in place, having enough food and water for 2 weeks is a bare minimum. I personally keep enough food and water on hand for 6 months. While I know this may be a bit on the extreme side, your safety and long-term survivability is solely up to you.

What other possible dangers can occur?

Aside from the dangers that were already mentioned above, another possible danger that you need to account for after an earthquake is civil unrest. 

Yes, civil unrest can occur, especially when people become desperate and aid and supplies run out.  While most simply think they’ll go to the grocery store for food and water, just realize that these locations have a just-in-time delivery system in which they can keep their shelves full without storing any inventory on their premises.  When people rush these stores, between the fact that the shelves will be quickly picked clean and the fact that there’s a strong potential for chaos to break out when the shelves are picked bare, being in this environment would simply not be safe.  There’s an old saying that society is 9 meals away from anarchy. When people can no longer get access to food and water, they’ll become desperate.

Desperate times will usually lead to desperate measures.  And if the government mismanages the aid to the affected area or is slow to deliver them to those in need, people will simply take matters into their own hands in order to survive.  

Having a plan to defend you and your family should it come down to it will be equally important.  I’ll leave this part up to you, but it’s something you need to factor into your preparedness.


Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon on our planet and there’s really no way to prevent it from happening.  This is why a lot of experts are always reminding people in California to prepare for the “Big One”. They just don’t know when and how strong it will be since experts still don’t have the necessary tools to provide this exact prediction.  It could be tomorrow or it could be 5 to 10 years down the line, no one really knows. 

But data suggests it is primed to happen and that we’re overdue, so it’s best that you are prepared for it. 

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social media.  I always learn a lot from the community, so please post any feedback in the comment section below.  As always, stay safe out there.

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Dan Huffer
Dan Huffer
1 year ago

Great information … Thanks

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