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Earthquake Preparedness: How to Prepare for the ‘Big One’

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If you are living on or near the West Coast of North America, taking steps to safeguard your home and family has never been timelier.

By Patrick Walshe Posted Feb 7, 2017

Displaced concrete

In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so.
—Kathryn Schultz, from “The Really Big One”

On the night of January 26 in the year 1700, the West Coast of North America shook so violently that it would have been difficult to stand up. Aboriginal longhouses collapsed, and there were no flashlights to light the escape route. Within 20 minutes, a wall of water between 80 to 95 feet high arrived through the darkness. The Cascadia subduction zone had slipped along its 620 mile fault line in a megathrust earthquake estimated to have hit a magnitude (M) of 8.7 to 9.2 on the Richter scale.

According to the latest studies, earthquakes between M8 and 9 happen in the coastal region between Cape Mendocino, California, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, every 243 years on average. Sea floor evidence demonstrates at least 41 big quakes, with colossal tsunamis dragging terrestrial material out to sea where it is deposited in bands that can be detected in core samples years later. In the 1700 quake, parts of the coastal landscape dropped approximately two meters, creating ghost forests killed by the flooding salt water. Studying the rings of these trees later helped establish the date of the earthquake.

Thanks to this research, scientists now predict a 40% chance of a M9+ earthquake in the next 50 years. Canadian seismologists add that the likelihood of these big quakes increases for a period of two weeks every 14 months due to ‘slow slip’ events noted in the earth’s crust. The next period of increased likelihood is expected to fall this month—February 2017. That means for coastal residents who have been putting off getting ready for ‘the big one,’ there’s no time like the present.

Preparing for a large earthquake may seem daunting, but there are immediate steps you can take to safeguard your home and family and improve your chance of survival.

Police car

1. Practice Earthquake Drills

Every year provincial and state governments promote the value of earthquake drills during what’s known as the “Great ShakeOut.” Using this or other opportunities to practice what you and your family members should do during an earthquake helps keep earthquake preparedness top of mind over the long term. A comprehensive earthquake drill includes:

  • Identifying safe zones and at least two escape routes in every room.
  • Finding shelter under a table or desk near the center of the house away from exterior walls, windows, mirrors, glass, light fixtures, or tall objects (and not between unsecured large appliances or furnishings). Stay on all fours so you can move with your shelter. If some rooms lack shelter, practice curling up face down and protecting your head and neck with hands and arms.
  • Practicing your drill in the dark to simulate a nighttime earthquake. Agencies recommend staying in bed and covering yourself with pillows and blankets if you are there when an earthquake hits, providing there are no overhead hazards.
  • Staying in these safe zones for a realistic amount of time. The shaking during Alaska’s 1964 megathrust quake (M9.2) lasted for four minutes and 39 seconds.
  • Meeting at your pre-arranged muster point outside the house. Be sure to have a plan that includes who will pick up the kids at school and where they will be located. You can also sign up for disaster notifications from the US Geological Survey or download the Earthquake Alert! app that will transmit directly to your cell phone and email account in a real emergency, which may save you precious seconds or minutes of preparation.
  • Reviewing what should be done after you exit the building. Will you need to turn off any gas or electrical switches after everyone is accounted for? Do you have the tools you need on hand to do this?
  • Identifying and traveling evacuation routes if you live in a tsunami zone. For many coastal dwellers, this includes the very real likelihood that you will be traveling on foot.

2. Prepare Family Grab bags

Stock several flashlights with attached whistles around the house to make it easier to locate your family, do your damage assessment, and exit your house after the shaking stops. One idea is to attach a small pack or ‘grab bag’ to the legs of each bed so you can have what you need very quickly in the confusion of darkness and possible fire. Items for grab bags include:

  • Shoes or hard-soled slippers for navigating broken glass
  • Basic first aid items
  • Dust or smoke mask
  • Leather gloves
  • Extra clothes for exiting into the cold or rain
  • Spare prescription medications or prescription eyeglasses
  • Small flashlight

3. Stock Your Earthquake Kit

Emergency Food Kits
Store an all-purpose earthquake kit in a shed outside your house in case you have to make a quick exit and the building is too dangerous to re-enter. Storing some or all of these supplies in your car is important if you travel frequently or if you live in a tsunami zone and expect the roads to be passable. Your all-purpose earthquake kit should include:

Lighting

The kit should have flashlights, ideally solar charging varieties. Hand-crank flashlights are another option. If you opt for battery-powered flashlights, include extra batteries in the kit.

Water

Essential for survival, water can be stored in plastic containers in your shed or other outbuilding. Ensure you have one gallon per person per day and change it once a year. You can also include water filters like the LifeStraw in your kit so that you can make ready use of rain collected off the roof, from local streams or ditches, or from shallow wells.

Your house’s pressure tank, hot water tank, and pipes are also good sources of water if the house is safe to access. Open a tap up high to allow air into the system and collect water at tap located in a low point in the house or at an outside tap.

Food

Urban survival bug out bag
Many pre-made earthquake kits will provide for your basic needs for three days, which may be fine in some situations. However, if you are preparing for a M8 or 9 earthquake, you should seriously consider augmenting the kit with enough supplies to last a week or more. With a large proportion of bridges and overpasses collapsed and landslides blocking highways, it may be many weeks before the transportation system is functioning again. Ready-to-eat foods are the easiest, but if you have a means of cooking outdoors (like a camp stove or barbecue), that increases your options. Vacuum-packed, quick-cooking grains; dried fruits and vegetables; as well as beans are good low-cost options for your kit, along with canned food (don’t forget the can opener). If you have pets to care for, add pet food to your list. And if you lack storage or need something with a longer shelf life, consider one of the many emergency food supply kits available. Some will last up to 25 years.

Warmth

Be sure to include warm clothing such as wool and fleece, along with waterproof layers and warm sleeping bags or blankets, along with a tent or tarp in case your home is not habitable and a community shelter is not available immediately. Matches, lighters, candles and fire-making materials will also come in handy for extra warmth and for a place to cook or sterilize water.

First Aid

A first aid kit and whistle is essential in case there are injuries. Emergency responders could be overwhelmed and difficult to contact, especially since the communication systems may be down. Include your essential medications in this kit. Pet-specific kits are also available for four-legged friends.

Toilet and Sanitation

In addition to your daily requirements, be sure to have buckets on hand that you can line with two heavy duty plastic bags for human waste removal. Some survival kits come in a bucket with a ready-to-go toilet seat. These can be placed into a larger lined garbage can outside for removal when waste services resume. You can also set this up in your home toilet if the building is deemed safe. Just put in some kitty litter, sawdust, or ashes. If you live in the country, a composting toilet or an outhouse over a barrel could also be arranged. If you have a septic field and your plumbing survives intact, you may be able to dump a bucket of water into the toilet to flush down the contents (in the city this may create a public health hazard if the treatment system is broken).

Backup ID and Paperwork

It’s also handy to have copies of important papers in your earthquake kit. This includes spare ID, a family phone list, and copies of important documents or accounts. You can also place these in a lockable, fireproof safe located near your muster station.

Communication

SunBell Solar Lamp and Phone Charger
Communicating by text or email is expected to be easier following a large earthquake than by phone call. If you have a cell phone, consider adding a solar charger to your kit to ensure communication lines stay open. A comprehensive kit should also include a solar powered or wind up radio that would have national emergency broadcast information and news.

4. Secure Home Appliances, Furnishings and Other Contents

In addition to the above emergency preparedness measures, there are low cost steps you can take to secure your home appliances and furnishings before a quake happens. These will go a long way to safeguarding the lives of you and your family members during the intense shaking anticipated in a big or very big earthquake.

Check your windows

A top priority is securing the area where you sleep and spend most of your time. Current building codes require tempered glass in bedrooms and above bathtubs, so that if glass breaks it falls into smooth crumbs and not jagged shards. In most cases, there is a code in the bottom corner of the window that will identify it as tempered glass. If you can’t see a code, don a pair of polarized sunglasses and look at your window on a sunny day. Tempered glass usually contains lines and spots due to the manufacturing process. If your windows are older and you’re not certain of their status, you can get a safety film installed to prevent them from breaking into harmful shards. While you can do this yourself, a professional will help ensure there are no unsightly bubbles. Additionally, arrange your room so that your bed is not under a window or next to glass closet doors.

Secure mirrors and artwork

If there are mirrors, hanging plants, or glass art frames near the bed, these should be moved or secured with a sturdy eyehook. Get extra hooks that are rated for much more weight than the item, or a metal plate and loop with screws that will go into the stud at least 2” or more for heavy items. Be sure to use pliers to squeeze the hook closed after hooking onto the picture wire so that it can’t shake free. Alternatively, you can attach small carabiners to the picture wire and screw closed over the loop. You can also put heavy-duty mirror clips on all sides of the mirror. Inspect light fixtures and fans to check that they are well attached to the ceiling or get professional assistance.

Prevent fire hazards

Securing your propane tank, cook stove, furnace and other gas and electric appliances will help prevent problems before they happen. Many of these can be secured with metal L-brackets screwed into the floor or wall studs and bolted onto the appliance. Remember to have at least one fire extinguisher on every level of your home and make sure everyone knows where they are and how to use them. There should also be fire alarms in bedrooms as well as on every level of your house.

Stabilize hot water tanks

Hot water tank
The minimum code in many places is not enough to secure a hot water tank during an earthquake. Plumber’s tape is too brittle, but you can get a convenient kit with 24 gauge, 2” wide straps for about $30. This includes the lag bolts and washers used to secure the strap into the studs and a tightening mechanism. If you have concrete walls, you can get anchor bolts with sleeves that expand to anchor the bolt in place. First, brace the tank with 2”x4” lumber and shims screwed horizontally into the wall studs behind the tank so that it does not bang against the wall (remember to respect any clearance requirements for gas hot water heater components). The gas, water and electrical connections should be flexible so that they are less likely to break.

Secure wood stoves

These can easily start a fire or spill poisonous fumes and smoke into the house if they tip over or break the chimney. The feet or pedestal of the stove should be bolted to floor joists or secured by bricks grouted around the edges or bolted to the floor. You can also get concrete anchors that take a lag bolt if you have a concrete floor. All stovepipe connections should be screwed together. If the pipe goes up more than 8’, you may need a brace on the pipe as well. If you have an older brick chimney and you are not sure if it is reinforced with rebar, you may wish to take down the portion above the roof so that it does not fall on someone (if it can’t be reinforced).

Consider generators

If you purchase a generator to use after an emergency like an earthquake, be sure to use it outdoors away from air intakes and in an area away from flammable materials, including gas cans. People die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning when they use their generators inside. (Even when using generators outside, it’s wise to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.) Note that propane stores much longer than gasoline without gelling. Don’t plug your generator into your house electrical system unless you have a switch to isolate it from the grid.

Safeguard hazardous chemicals

Store all hazardous chemicals outside the home or at least make sure they are secure on a bottom shelf of a cabinet secured to a wall. Use secure locking latches on the doors.

Secure furnishings and appliances

Dressers, shelving units, appliances, TVs, and other tall furnishings should be bolted to the wall. For tall items, you can find the studs, mark the height of the top of the unit, and bolt L-brackets into the studs. They will be hidden behind the unit and screwed into the top.
Secure furniture
L-brackets to hold furniture
Another option is to open the cabinet and put a bracket or metal plate on the inside and screw into the stud from there. Heavy nylon or steel straps can also be used. Freestanding appliances may need to be secured at the bottom or at least blocked in place. Baby latches or other heavy-duty latches will prevent the doors from flying open and spilling the contents during an earthquake. You can use non-skid mats (from boating or RV stores) or museum putty and foam liner to help prevent items from smashing together. You can also put a wood or clear plastic strip along the lower part of each open shelf to secure items. Put heavy or glass items on the lower shelves or store in non-breakable containers.

For more information about how to secure specific household items, consult the Association of Bay Area Governments Resilience Program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also produced a visual hazards map for at-a-glance information.

5. Consider Seismic Upgrades

With each new earthquake the world experiences, policy makers adjust building codes to reflect lessons learned. Before the 1980’s, scientists did not believe that M9 earthquakes could occur in the Pacific Northwest, so building codes were not adequate, especially for bigger buildings. New buildings constructed from California to British Columbia now incorporate seismic features during construction, but depending on their location, these may not yet be adequate for a megathrust earthquake. In the same way, retrofits can equip an older building to withstand big earthquakes, and many have already received this treatment.

Houses in San Francisco
Generally, small residential wood frame buildings are more resilient than older brick and concrete or tall buildings that may lack adequate reinforcement. Chances are that your wood frame house will stay standing, but in some regions, unless it is built above minimum code, it may still be damaged enough to make it uninhabitable. Check with a structural engineer to see what options there are to seismically upgrade your house, or ask your landlord if any retrofits or upgrades have taken place. If you live in a tsunami zone, your goal is to make the house as safe as possible so you can exit quickly once the shaking stops.

Remember that most injuries in wood-framed, single unit dwellings in this part of the world are from falling objects, shifting furnishings, and broken glass—much of which is within your control. Additionally, fires often break out from damaged chimneys and broken gas or electrical lines, which can be retrofitted for safety. Arm yourself by getting answers to the following questions:

  • Do you have a brick chimney? If so, is it likely to be reinforced?
  • Is the house built on a raised foundation and crawlspace? If so, is it reinforced so it won’t buckle or collapse?
  • Is the foundation adequately bolted to the floor to prevent the house from drifting or detaching?
  • Are the windows in the bedrooms and bath areas tempered glass? (See above)
  • Are basement walls strong enough to support the structure during a period of intense shaking?
  • Do you occupy living space over a garage? If so, has the space beneath been designed or retrofitted to be earthquake resistant?

Some do-it-yourself fixes for some of the above issues are available from Oregon State University.

A Final Word

By safeguarding your house or living space, you and your family can sleep easier knowing that you have prepared to the best of your ability for what will come. If you have a plan in place when the shaking starts, you will be more likely to respond appropriately and improve outcomes for your home and family. In a scenario where government services are expected to grind to a halt, and individuals are expected to care for personal property and loved ones in the short to medium term, there is no reason not to be proactive and get prepared.

Sources

Schultz, Kathryn. “The Really Big One,” New Yorker, January 2015.

“Perilous Situation,” The Oregonian. 2009-04-19. Archived from the original on 23 April, 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-12.

Atwater, B.F., Musumi-Rokkaku, S., Satake, K., Tsuji, Y., Ueda, K., and Yamaguchi, D.K., 2015. The orphan tsunami of 1700—Japanese clues to a parent earthquake in North America, 2nd ed.: Seattle, University of Washington Press, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1707, 135 p.

January 26, 1700: How Scientists Know When the Last Big Earthquake Happened Here. Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 26, 2015.

Ghosts of Tsunamis Past, American Museum of Natural History. amnh.org.

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How to Prepare for the 'Big One'

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Patrick Walshe is a Registered Professional Biologist who spent his childhood watching and tracking animals in the Quetico-Superior wilderness bordering Northern Minnesota.
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  • This is critical information, well researched and presented. I’ll be applying a number of these suggestions as soon as possible. Thank you Patrick!

  • Hamsa

    Very useful information.Looking like researched and analysed the similar situations for a long time.Great work.

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