Earthquakes can take you by surprise. One minute you’re eating dinner, taking a shower, or driving to work, and the next, the ground starts shaking. Earthquakes are caused by shifting plates of the earth’s crust. The seismic scale ranges from 2.5 (usually not felt) to 8 and above (can level cities).
Today, 48 states are at risk for major earthquakes, threatening nearly half of Americans. Hotspots are located along the West Coast and parts of the Mississippi Valley. If you or a loved one lives in one of these areas, it’s smart to make a game plan for if “the big one” hits.
Earthquakes can cause falling objects, broken utility and power lines, and even fires. We recommend making a few structural changes to your home for the best preparation.
The first step to setting up an earthquake-proof home is securing your belongings. Never assume “It’s too heavy; it won’t move.” A major quake can topple bookshelves and everything on them.
The Earthquake Country Alliance website provides a detailed list of how to secure items in your space. A good rule of thumb is to secure anything that is above knee level—bolt bookcases to the wall, putty small objects to the shelf, and secure your TV. Anti-tip fasteners keep dressers, bookshelves, and desks secure, and they only take a moment to install.
You’ll also want to make sure gas and water lines are secure. Heavy shaking from an earthquake can knock connections loose, causing leaks.
2. Form an Action Plan
Though the shaking lasts seconds, an earthquake can cause permanent damage. Learn how to create an emergency plan in case of an earthquake, fire, or other emergencies.
If You’re Home
Choose a safe place in each room of your house. Under dining room tables and walls away from heavy objects are best. When the earthquake starts, the shaking could send objects like pots, pans, and picture frames crashing down.
Keep enough emergency supplies on hand to last a couple of days. If the earthquake is strong enough, it could cut utilities like power and water.
The least you should have on hand is a 72-hour kit for each person in your home. Tuck copies of essential documents—like IDs and insurance policies—into the kit, as well as an inventory of things you want to grab if you have to leave the house immediately, like pictures and hard drives.
If You’re Out
You may not be home during an earthquake, so learn the disaster protocol at your office and your child’s school as well. But the main principles remain the same: take shelter under a sturdy table or desk, and avoid spots by glass or bookcases.
Coordinate an out-of-state emergency contact who can relay information if local phone lines are down and there’s no way for your immediate family to get in touch with one another.
Carry emergency supplies in your car like food, water, first aid, and extra clothes. If an earthquake starts while you’re driving, slow down and find a clear place to park. Avoid trees, powerlines, bridges, and buildings when possible. Then, tune into your local radio station for updates.
3. Practice Drop, Cover, and Hold
Ready.gov recommends the drop, cover, and hold method:
Drop to the ground on all fours. If you are in a wheelchair or walker, lock the wheels and cover your head and shoulders. This puts you in a stable position for the duration of the tremor.
Cover yourself. Find a sturdy table or desk. If nothing is available, flatten yourself against the wall away from mirrors, windows, picture frames, or heavy furniture. Cover your neck and head with your arms.
Hold your position. Hang tight and stay in place during the shaking. It’s hard not to panic, but you need to stay in a safe place during the tremor.
4. Protect Your Home Post-Tremor
The moments after an earthquake are critical. Aftershocks—the smaller quakes after a larger quake—are likely to happen. They can cause hazards like fire, lost utilities, and spills in your home.
During a quake, some dangerous possible outcomes include power lines falling, electrical wiring damage, and broken appliances. If there is any damage to your home’s wiring, shut off the main breaker and keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Shaking from an earthquake can cut off power, gas, and water lines. This could leave you without utilities, and it can also cause dangerous leaks. If your water or gas line starts leaking, turn off the line and notify authorities. Leave the house as soon as you can and wait for help to arrive.
Quakes can topple medicine bottles, cleaning solutions, gas cans, and garden chemicals. If a spill shows up, open windows for ventilation and start mopping up nasty chemicals before they mix.
Earthquakes are hard to predict, so it’s best to plan for “the big one” in case it ever strikes. Share these tips with loved ones in your area to keep them safe too.
Earthquake Safety FAQ
Where can I get relief if my home is damaged?
Organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, and local nonprofits can help if an earthquake strikes.
Should I stand in the doorway during an earthquake?
No. It’s a common myth that standing in a doorway can keep you safe when the ground shakes. The University of Washington says you’re safer under a table. Modern houses don’t reinforce doorways much more than any other part of your house. The “Drop, Cover, and Hold” method is still the best to follow.
Along with the doorway myth, other myths like going outside and “The Triangle of Life” (positioning yourself between heavy furniture like bookcases and couches) are also outdated and deemed ineffective.
Does home insurance cover earthquakes?
Generally, no. But you can find earthquake insurance. If you live along a fault line or near a hotspot, the Insurance Information Institute says it can be worth investing.
Katie McEntire has tested home security systems in her own apartment, installed GPS trackers in her own car, and watched her cat, Toki, nap all day through a live nanny cam feed. As an expert reviewer, she believes that firsthand experience is the best way to learn about new products (even if it requires being the guinea pig). She specializes in pet safety and DIY security and has contributed to publications like DigitalCare.org and TechGuySmartBuy. Learn more